Manufacturing Industry Cries, 'Come Back, Rosie!'

When she was a high school sophomore in Chicago, Antoinette Leatherberry was recruited for an industry “early identification program” sponsored by a local college.

She spent an entire summer and a subsequent year of Saturdays tinkering with computers and learning about forms of engineering before going on to earn a manufacturing engineering degree at Boston University. Leatherberry, now a principal at Deloitte Consulting, admits there aren’t enough success stories like hers.

“Many women still feel a sense of isolation in this field,” Leatherberry told attendees of a March 18, 2014, panel discussion sponsored by The Aspen Institute, an educational and policy-studies nonprofit in Washington, D.C. “To them it’s still an old boys’ club.”

Bringing Back Rosie the Riveter

The Aspen program was a call for more women to step up to help close the industry’s ongoing skills gap. Steady retirement levels among highly skilled older workers and a dearth of qualified applicants for many job openings have threatened the industry’s future and forced many in the business to scramble for solutions.

Why women? They are increasingly outperforming men in earning college degrees and acquiring advanced skills, according to recent evidence cited by Aspen officials. Demographically, women make up greater shares of labor forces around the world.

And their careers will likely last much longer in the future, predicted Blanche Lincoln, founder and principal of Washington, D.C.-based consultancy Lincoln Policy Group.

“I saw a recent study that said over 50 percent of baby girls born today will live to be over 100 years old,” said Lincoln, a former U.S. senator from Arkansas. “We are not talking about getting people to age 65 anymore.”

Honing Recruitment to Reach ‘All Walks of Life’

But drawing more women into the industry won’t be easy, according to the event’s speakers. Though all of the panelists agreed that reaching students at an early age was crucial to capturing their interest, there are other populations to consider, as well.

Only 15 percent of students overall go into a four-year degree program after completing their K-12 education, said Theresa Maldonado, director of the division of engineering education centers at the National Science Foundation. The rest are nontraditional students, 43 percent of whom attend two-year schools and 37 percent of whom go to school part time.

“So when we’re looking at women, they’re not just coming out of high school,” Maldonado said. “They are in all walks of life.”

Failing to tap half of America’s potential talent pool will have “negative consequences for future economic growth and innovation,” according to the Alexandria, Va.-based Association for Women in Science (AWIS), a nonprofit advocate for women in science, engineering and related high-tech careers. Roughly two-thirds of U.S. companies (67 percent) are facing a manufacturing worker shortage, according to AWIS, but women make up just a quarter of the advanced-manufacturing workforce. And while technical acumen is paramount, that’s not the only skill these workers need, said Aspen panelist Karen Fletcher, vice president of Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont Engineering, a division of the chemical and consumer-product manufacturing giant.

“The problems we face [in the workplace] are more and more complex,” Fletcher observed. “We need engineers who can work with biologists, for example. We need good communicators and people with the ability to collaborate and creatively solve problems. Our competitiveness is hanging in the balance.”

Above all, a nasty public perception of the shop floor and the past trends of offshoring manufacturing jobs negatively influence interest in these careers. Citing some of her organization’s research, Leatherberry said 86 percent of people believe that manufacturing is “fundamental to our economic prosperity,” yet the industry ranks “dead last” as a career choice for 18- to 24-year-olds.

“Many of them say their opportunity to work would be lost because the job would eventually go overseas,” she said. “To solve this problem, we need an integration of policy, education and the business community.”

One organization has already heeded the call. Million Women Mentors, an advocacy group launched in January 2014 in Washington, D.C., is trying to identify 1 million mentors, both men and women, in the U.S. workplace to pique young women’s interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers. Numerous corporate partners have already signed up, including tech giant Cisco and the consulting group Accenture. The organization plans to start mentoring students in the fall of 2014.

Joseph Coombs is a senior analyst for workforce trends at SHRM.

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