Why is the number of women in manufacturing declining?

In the past few years, there has been a lot of discussion concerning the shortage of skilled workers in the manufacturing sector.

At the same time, while women make up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, only 27 percent of manufacturing employees are female.

In fact, between February 2010 and April 2013, when sector jobs were on the rise, and 558,000 men were hired, an overall 28,000 manufacturing jobs were lost by women.

Where is the disconnect?

In an effort to find out, Congress and industry associations are focusing on this issue. A 2013 paper by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress analyzed women’s roles in light of manufacturing’s importance to the country’s economy. Recent signs of manufacturing revival in this country make it even more critical that companies have enough skilled workers available or momentum may stall.

Men have historically held more manufacturing jobs than women, except during World War II, when women filled in for men serving in the armed services. In recent decades, the peak employment figure was 32 percent in 1990, with declines posted every year since. This continued attrition while the industry is adding jobs points to a widening gap when the reverse might be expected.

Analyzing occupations provides further insights into where women are working within the sector. While women made up 27 percent of production employees in 2012, they held 62 percent of office and administrative positions.

However, they were in the minority in other white-collar categories such as professional (22 percent) and management (32 percent). In sales, they represented just over one-third of employees.

Perception plays a prominent role in creating this situation as it has in attracting employees of both genders. Manufacturing is regarded as hard and dirty work best performed by those with brute strength. This image was no doubt created by early working conditions in steel mills and other heavy industries.

But since much production has shifted to high-tech equipment, this idea is outdated. There are also positions for women in research and development and management, all of which require high levels of education and talent. With the range of goods produced in this country, there are many opportunities for interesting and rewarding work.

In 2014, the nonprofit organization Women in Manufacturing sponsored a survey of two groups – women between the ages of 17-24 and women already working in manufacturing. The aim was to discover student perceptions about careers in manufacturing and compare those to the reality female employees are experiencing. Thoughts about how to make manufacturing a more desirable choice for women were also explored.

As expected, those outside the industry didn’t consider it as a primary choice when deciding upon a career. In fact, only 10 percent of respondents chose manufacturing as a top five sector to explore. Fewer than half thought of positions in manufacturing as interesting and rewarding.

Women working in the industry held vastly different views. More than 80 percent felt that manufacturing offered interesting work, and three-quarters believed there were a variety of career paths available to women.

The majority also saw a lack of recruitment and retention efforts targeting women in their companies and feel this is an area that needs improvement. Based on this feedback and the worker shortage, companies might be well-advised to adjust their hiring practices and approaches.

The key question is, why isn’t the company attractive to women? Where are the gaps in skilled labor, and how do they match the available pool of female students and experienced workers?

The joint commission recommended a range of solutions to encourage women to seek positions in manufacturing. Changing the landscape of women’s employment across the sector needs to include initiatives both in education and in the private sector.

Recommendations include:

  • Focus on increasing the proficiency of young female students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), starting in elementary school
  • Enroll more women at the community college and technical school level in courses related to careers in manufacturing
  • Promote more women to top roles, not only in management but in the executive suite and on company boards

Manufacturing is at a critical juncture. A sufficient supply of talented and trained workers is essential for gains to be maintained and built upon.

Better communication of the opportunities available to women while focusing on meeting women’s needs in the workplace will benefit both workers and companies seeking success. – Elizabeth Penney, M.B.A.