Efforts foster more women in manufacturing

In an industry with workforce challenges, females make up less than a third of employees

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When the Menomonee Valley Partners began holding career day events a few years ago, there would often be just three or four girls in a group of 20 students learning about careers in engineering and manufacturing. 

On one tour at Rexnord, a young woman remarked that she had wanted to be an engineer but was doubting that decision after she didn’t see any women or people of color in those roles during her visit.

A top executive at Rexnord happened to be with the group and heard that message. A few weeks later, Catrina Crane, director of workforce and business solutions with Menomonee Valley Partners, got a call from a woman who worked at Rexnord.

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“She said, ‘We’re her; we’re just kind of sprinkled around. Rexnord is a 55-acre campus, but I’m a woman, I’m an engineer and let’s make some things happen for these kids,’” Crane recalled.

That conversation led MVP to create its Young Women in STEM program, which draws students from several schools to bring together an all-girls group. Like many career experiences, students tour a company and learn about the industry.

The difference is that the program brings together women in the industry to provide mentoring and one-on-one engagement. It opens up an opportunity for students to ask questions like balancing work in manufacturing with being a mom and others they may not address in a group with their male classmates.

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“You’ve removed the stereotype of this is only for men,” Crane said.

While there are around 139,000 women in manufacturing in Wisconsin, it is easy to see how that stereotype could develop. Women make up about 29% of the industry, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, while they make up about 50% of the workforce overall.

In an industry where employers often lament their inability to find employees, the underrepresentation of women presents an opportunity to tap into a broader employee pool. It can also be a challenge to draw women to a male-dominated industry that battles lingering perceptions of dark, dirty and dangerous manufacturing jobs.

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Until 2017, Wisconsin had a chapter of Women in Manufacturing, a national trade group that supports and promotes careers in the industry for women. The chapter’s board disbanded, but in 2018 and 2019 a new group of women worked to restart it, ultimately relaunching in May.

Since the relaunch, the chapter has grown membership more than 20% to around 130 people. The group holds regular events, including plant tours and a speaker series. The program is geared toward everyone from the shop floor to the c-suite, said Andrea Virsnieks, board chair and a manager in manufacturing and distribution at CliftonLarsonAllen LLP.

She added that companies the chapter has worked with so far have been eager to open their doors.

“I feel like because there is such a misconception with manufacturing companies and women in manufacturing that they’re just wanting to help,” Virsnieks said.

But there is a difference between opening a company’s doors for a plant tour and hiring significant numbers of women in a male-dominated industry.

“We still don’t find very many (women) applying for jobs, especially the skilled trades jobs, and rarely will find women applying for engineering jobs,” said Mary Isbister, president of Mequon-based GenMet.

Isbister said the education system has done better in recent years at encouraging young women to consider technical fields but added interest is often ultimately driven by what children experience at home.

For Isbister, it wasn’t odd to pursue a technical field – chemistry originally – because her mom had been a chief technologist in a radiology department when she was growing up. It was her father who took more of an interest in liberal arts and literature. Isbister came to manufacturing when, along with her husband Eric, she bought GenMet.

Amy Street, chair of the Women in Manufacturing-Wisconsin membership committee, came to manufacturing because she was mechanically inclined and often took a technical or analytical approach to things.

“I wanted to work with my hands, create things and make things,” said Street, now a fabrication engineer at Grafton-based Kapco Metal Stamping.

For Kristina Harrington, chief operations officer of Brookfield-based GenAlpha Technologies, it was almost as if manufacturing chose her. She won a student-athlete award in high school and sat at a table with people from W.H. Brady Co. during the awards banquet. After serving as a machinist in the Navy, Harrington applied at W.H. Brady Co. and worked on the production floor.

She later went back to school, working there while she went to Marquette University for business.

Harrington eventually went to work at Bucyrus International, taking on a variety of business roles as the company grew and was eventually acquired by Caterpillar. She said it was the variety of opportunities she received that kept her in the industry.

“Manufacturing always has to keep reinventing itself as the needs of its customers keep expanding,” Harrington said.

Street said opportunities are also plentiful on the shop floor, adding that employees need only ask their supervisor or other superiors what they need to do to get prepared for advancement within the company.

“It will evolve, you just have to ask; you have to work hard and most companies want you to stay,” she said. “They want you to grow within the company.”

Outside of those who are naturally drawn to the industry, Isbister said the lack of women in manufacturing contributes to the challenge of attracting more women, noting women tend to thrive in more collegial settings.

“If you’re in an environment where there’s mostly men and you’re one woman or one of very few, you’re not typically invited into that group,” she said, adding some men might still unconsciously question if a woman can pull their weight on the shop floor.

While GenMet doesn’t explicitly set out to recruit more women, Isbister said the company does broaden the pool of applicants by hiring from non-technical backgrounds.

“We feel that we can train them to be good fabricators,” she said.

Street said Kapco too has been hiring more people who previously worked at fast food restaurants and grocery or department stores. She said it is important in those cases to have training readily available for new hires, mentors on the shop floor and supervisors who are prepared to train and teach people without a manufacturing background.

Isbister said it is also important to make social spaces welcoming, to create diverse teams for work projects and talk through issues with people who do have concerns.

She also advised against bringing on women solely to increase gender diversity in the company, something she acknowledged wanting to do in her early years at GenMet.

“As long as you can make accommodations that you’d make for anybody, that’s OK, but they have to be qualified or you’re just going to reinforce the things that people are going in thinking,” Isbister said.

Harrington said that as she grew in her role at Bucyrus, she often found herself as the first or only woman in the room, adding that it often led to a feeling of needing to fit in.

“I have learned that the more often that I am just authentically myself, that’s how I best fit in. I think sometimes it’s just the courage to be who you are,” Harrington said.

She said what is needed from men is the space for women to have a voice and for manufacturing companies to continue giving women opportunities.

“When you’re given that space to have the voice and you come with the courage to be who you are, relationships naturally form and progress is made cohesively,” Harrington said.

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