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Closing the Gender Gap, and with It, the Skills Gap

July 21, 2015
Expecting women to find their way into manufacturing—and thrive in it—by paying lip service to “diversity” isn’t enough, a Manufacturing Institute study finds.

It's no secret U.S manufacturing needs skilled workers; the Manufacturing Institute predicts a shortage of 2 million by 2025. One of the more obvious ways to fill that gap is by recruiting and retaining more women, who are currently underrepresented in manufacturing. Only 26% of the U.S. manufacturing workforce is female, compared to nearly 50% of the total U.S. workforce.

Judging from the percentages, expecting women to find their way into the industry—and thrive in it—by paying lip service to “diversity” isn’t enough. A new study finds that manufacturing can attract more women by making a concerted effort to recruit them through their social networks; retaining them through mentorships, better pay and more flexible hours; and fostering girls’ interest in manufacturing careers as early as fourth grade.

The study, “Minding the Manufacturing Gender Gap,” was based on survey responses by 600 women working across all levels of manufacturing. The Manufacturing Institute, the professional services firm  Deloitte, and the APICS Supply Chain Council conducted the study in response to Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers.

“If we can begin to close that gender gap, it will be possible to simultaneously close the skills gap,” says Gardner Carrick, vice president of strategic initiatives at the Manufacturing Institute.

First, the good news from the study:

Two-thirds of women say they would stay in manufacturing if they were to start their careers today, and the majority of them would recommend manufacturing to their daughters or female relatives.

Carrick says it’s significant that “women who are in the industry feel that it’s valuable, that their contributions are valued, and they would select this industry again. Capitalizing on that, building on that, and understanding that that’s a powerful retention and recruiting tool” is key, says Carrick. “If women are satisfied with where they are—and where they are in the company—they’re going to be more positive on selling others.”

Next, the not-so-good news:

Sixty-five percent of the women who responded said their company does not have an active recruitment program to attract potential female employees, and 73% of respondents believe women are underrepresented on their companies’ leadership teams. Thirty percent of women rated their company’s efforts at female recruitment as “poor or very poor,” and 26% thought the same of female retention efforts.

Overall, the women in the survey (37%) thought the retail industry did the best job of recruiting and retaining women. Only 1% each thought the manufacturing sectors of aerospace and defense, energy and resources, and automotive did the best job.

Carrick says that subsequent interviews with 15 female executives in a roundtable discussion revealed that “it really does require executive leadership support and pressure and commitment to make [recruitment and retention of women] successful.

“When the CEO, or the C-Suite is saying, ‘This is a top priority for us and we are going to base part of your performance on whether or not you’re successful in recruiting women,’ then it becomes something that is on the mind day-to-day of their employees. If it’s not a priority of the C-Suite, then it’s not something that gets the attention or the necessary budget to ensure success. We need to change that.”

Along with challenging assignments and good pay, the women in the survey also highly valued flexible work hours—a perk not easy to come by on the shop floor. “The assembly line runs from 7 to 4, and there’s no sort of flex hours in their summer schedules,” says Carrick. “So it has been more of a challenge for companies to come up with those programs, but I think some are getting creative in how to do that.”

Rather than just “everyone has to work eight-hour shifts,” think about how you can accommodate people and still keep the line running smoothly, says Carrick. “So if you’re going to have women that need to be able to work part-time, can you pair up part-time workers to cover full-time? Can you have two four-hour shifts because ‘I need to be able to leave at noon to get my child from a half day preschool?’”

Companies with perks like eldercare support and substitute caregivers for children also tend to be popular with female workers, says Carrick.

Finally, the women surveyed indicated that formal mentorships and sponsorships were more effective than women’s networking groups in paving the way for leadership roles, and that companies should make more of an effort to interest girls in manufacturing starting in the middle school years, through mentoring programs and outreach at schools and groups like the Girl Scouts.

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