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Women in Manufacturing

Written by Brooklyn Sewell, HR Admin, Peak Performance Inc.

When American men left to fight in World War II, it opened doors for women to enter the manufacturing industry in positions that were previously closed to them. During this time, Rosie the Riveter became an icon for working women and became the star of a campaign aimed at recruiting female workers in industries. Though barriers have been weakened for women to enter the manufacturing workforce, women are still underrepresented.

In the National Association of Manufacturers’ 2019 3rd quarter outlook survey, the greatest challenge that manufacturers of all sizes continue to face is a qualified workforce. Furthermore, the inability to attract and retain workers remained respondents’ top concern for the eighth consecutive year. 78.7 percent of respondents said that they have open positions that they are struggling to fill, and roughly one-third were forced to turn down business opportunities due to their inability to find sufficient talent.

Women are one of largest pools of untapped talent for manufacturers, meaning women are part of the solution to the many of the unfilled jobs in the manufacturing workforce. In order to bridge these gaps, manufacturers must reshape the way people think about jobs in manufacturing and educate them about what jobs are available and the qualifications necessary to fill these jobs.

The perception of the manufacturing industry is that it is dirty, unskilled, and back breaking labor. However, advances in technology has dramatically changed the way products are manufactured. Today, manufacturing jobs require a higher skill set where a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) degrees are desired. According to an AAUW report, men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field with women earning only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees. Moreover, women’s representation in science and engineering declines further at the graduate level and yet again in the transition to the workplace. To blame is negative stereotypes about a girl’s achievements in the STEM field, lack of interest of STEM in girls, and work-life balance to bias. Not only are these perceptions wrong, but they are hurting our workforce.

At this moment, several key leaders in manufacturing in the state of Tennessee understand not only the importance but the value of utilizing women to fill the skills gap. It has become an objective of manufacturing leaders in Tennessee, to create a Tennessee Women in Manufacturing (WiM) chapter. To support these initiatives, manufacturers have voiced their commitment by creating an environment that supports women. Denise Rice, President & CEO of Peak Performance, is one of the leaders of this initiative. Denise Rice believes that starting a WiM chapter in Tennessee will allows us to better empower women in manufacturing by providing women opportunities for manufacturers to expand their local network, build valuable business relationships, and enjoy industry-related programming. Denise Rice stated, “Having role models in the manufacturing field will encourage more young women to pursue a career in manufacturing. Having mentors in the manufacturing field will retain women in the industry. A WiM chapter is focused on providing these opportunities.”

Lynne Willet

Women have led the way through their work in developing solutions to some of the greatest challenges. If we can better inspire and encourage more women to join the manufacturing workforce, they can be part of the solution to the industry needs. Fortunately, there are already a few women who are making their mark as leaders in manufacturing. I spoke with, Lynne Willet (right), HR Director at Resolute Forest Product in Calhoun in Charleston, TN. Here are her insights on leading the way for women in manufacturing.

How did you get your start in manufacturing?

My small hometown had several manufacturing companies, and they were the backbone of the community. So, I've always understood the importance of the effects on the economy of having industry that produces a product; the other important piece of that is producing a product that has a strong demand out on the market.

What drew you to the industry?

This is an important question! I have always been fascinated with how successful companies are able to remain profitable and relevant. Today, it is important for companies not only produce a quality product in a fiercely competitive and global environment, but to also be good stewards in the communities in which they operate. This means giving back to the local community (charitable giving, volunteering, and be an active partner in local and state government).

What are the biggest misperceptions that women have about working in manufacturing?

In my opinion, the biggest misperceptions are because of the image of manufacturing as a dead-end career path. I believe this is because there are unknowns about work conditions, culture, hours, and pay. There are many opportunities at all levels of manufacturing; for example, Human Resources, Accounting, Operations, Maintenance, and Engineering are all opportunities we have in our organization. I know many strong, successful women in my organization who work among a gamut of roles, including machine operators, supervisors, executive assistants, production, information technology, and accounting.

What are some of the main challenges for women working in manufacturing today?

In facilities that operate 24/7 and offer rotating shifts, it can be challenging to balance personal and professional lives when trying to raise a family. Childcare for people working shift work has always been a challenge for dual-career families or single parents. The other challenges involve those industries that primarily consist of a male workforce. For example, it can be intimidating to be the only female on a work crew, or on a leadership team. Women have to fully realize the value they bring to the table and not lose sight of that. Finding a male or female mentor is also a good way to ensure a support system when new challenges arise. Some of the best mentors and coaches I have known are males, and I wouldn't want people to think that manufacturing is an off-limits career path for women.

What advice would you give to a woman thinking about entering the manufacturing field for the first time?

Be inquisitive. Research the company, their product, their branding, their safety performance, and whether they are involved in important social issues, such as protecting the environment and charitable giving. If possible, talk to other people who work at the company and get their impressions. Find out what the company has to offer regarding benefits, pay, and professional development. Find out if they have a diversity initiative. Finally, if you are hired by the company of your choice, be an active participant in your own career path, because no one is going to manage it as well as you!

Brooklyn's article will be published in an upcoming issue of Southeast Tennessee Woman magazine, found here:

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