Closing the Factory Floor Gender Gap

By Stockton Grunewald
Jan 21 2022 |
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How manufacturers can (and are) securing a resilient workforce.

For the first time in a while, American workers are ostensibly having a bit more say over where and how they want to work. And if American industry wants to compete at the same scale as industries in China and other economic rivals, it will need to take advantage not just of our country’s domestic manufacturing capabilities but of another home-grown resource: Our demographic diversity. But how?

As part of several seminars on the future of manufacturing, Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs on Thursday took a shot at answering this question with an expert panel moderated by the Alliance for American Manufacturing’s own president, Scott Paul.

In his opening remarks, Paul laid out the need for highly skilled and adaptable manufacturing workers in the complicated world of a 21st century workplace. “(The workforce) component of manufacturing is critical, even in an age of automation and robotics,” he said. Paul pointed to some of stressors on the manufacturing labor pool that are somewhat unique to the sector, specifically the barrier to entry for women in manufacturing that still exists and has a profound impact on the perceptions of careers in the field.

There are plenty of smart people at work on this problem, however, and a few of them filled out Paul’s panel.

Tameshia Bridges-Manfield, vice president of Workforce Innovation at Jobs for the Future (JFF), works hard to tap the potential of underrepresented communities: workers of color, veterans, with disabilities, and young adults, hoping to ensure that workers “not just stay in their jobs, but thrive” in them. By being a catalyst for change, as advocates for expanded workforce training programs on Capitol Hill; and innovation, via the program JFF designs to put more workers in line with the skills they’ll need for the jobs of tomorrow.

JFF hope to register 750 apprentices in manufacturing this year, Bridges-Manfield said. Last year, JFF helped connect 800 new apprentices with manufacturers, with roughly half of them from underrepresented communities.

But first, Bridges-Manfield continued, manufacturers should be equity-focused – meaning they should be focused not just bringing in diverse individuals, but on how they’re structured to support them. And to do that, she argued, they should be data-informed so they understand what workers need. She put that into a simple question: “What are the skills that people need to have to move up?” she asked. Third, she argued these jobs should be worker-centered, asking, “where are opportunities for workers to put their voice into their work?”  

“I bet if you ask your workers, ‘What is happening?’, she said, “they’ll come up with good solutions.”

When Grace Hsia learned that how many pre-term babies were lost to preventable, hypothermia-related deaths, she set out to do something about it. Hsia and fellow undergraduate students at the University of Michigan created Warmilu, a non-electric warming technology manufacturer whose proven products not only provide comfort but save lives (and it’s American-made).

“It was tough to find and recruit the right talent” to manufacture these warming packs and incublankets, Hsia said, noting she had to train and recruit a whole seamstress team – something the local Michigan workforce was lacking.

But it’s paid off. Today Hsia’s company helps with “warming over 8,000 infants born to over 35 hospitals based in 16 countries with partners including Doctors Without Borders, Relief for Africa Foundation, Rotary Club, the Hillman Accelerator, UCSF, the University of Michigan, and P&G among others.”

Hsia, now also the Entrepreneurial Management and Leadership Lecturer at University of Michigan’s Center for Entrepreneurship, says she’s seeing “positive trends” in retaining workers in the manufacturing sector, but cautioned that overarching stereotypes and omission of the industry in education is certainly having an impact.

Hsia encouraged manufacturers to take an active role in communities, whether that be through filming promotional videos or accessing local development funds. Even something as seemingly small as a social media presence, she argued, can have a profound impact on the recruitment of potential employees.

“You can’t just bring the production line into the classroom,” she said. “Young people think manufacturing is dirty, is three shifts, ‘I might work 4am to noon’…. Show pictures, show people to fight some of those stereotypes.”

In short: The more personal the manufacturing experience is made, the better.

“Your voices help give these policy think tanks a voice (necessary) to advocate for better solutions,” Hsia argued.

Consuelo Poland Lockhart has come a long way in her life. Born in Guatemala and adopted by a family in Michigan as a small child, she was interested in woodworking in college and then came to welding for its promising work opportunities – only to find unspoken barriers to entry for women in a male-dominated field. A full 95% of certified welders are male, and there’s a significant pay discrepancy between welders based on sex.

The non-profit Lockhart founded in response, the Central Indiana-based Latinas Welding Guild, is doing its part to close that gap by encouraging interested women to consider welding as a career. Its program considers tuition based on need, boasts 10-week courses that culminates in certification, and is piloting an equitable employment program; Lockhart hopes to enroll and place 100 apprentices through the program this year.

The Latina Welding Guild is a remarkable program. Read more about it here.

Even with the great strides being made, there are still some setbacks and road bumps to watch out for. From workplace culture to caregiving responsibilities, all panelists stressed there is a lot left on the table when workplace polices either deliberately or inadvertently prevent employees from reaching their potential.

When pressed on what the public sector can do to promote underrepresented groups in manufacturing, all agreed that it is a joint venture between business and government. Hsia noted that many states have local development funds, and since those awards are publicly recorded, startups should study them to guide their buildout plans.

“Workers want dignity,” Paul said in his closing remarks. “And yes, they want wages or benefits, but they also want some dignity – and they have felt they are disposable because of the nature of a lot of things that are happening.” Expanding opportunity to them will go a long way toward doing that.