Can Women Solve the American Manufacturing Skilled Workforce Shortage?

American manufacturing is on the upswing. But a looming skills shortage threatens. What can be done? Recruiting more women to make a career in manufacturing can help the industry solve the talent shortage while becoming more innovative and productive at the same time.


Women training for skilled manufacturing jobs
Image by WVXU – Women training for skilled manufacturing jobs


Women are a major driving force in the workplace.

If you consider that women earned more than half of the associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees in the US – and the fact that women also hold more than half of all managerial, professional positions in this country – you could be forgiven for thinking that all industries are benefiting from this critical source of worker talent equally.

But that’s not the case. The manufacturing sector lags far behind in its efforts to attract women to join its ranks.

How far behind?

According to a study by Catalyst Research, women represent nearly half (46.6%) of employees in the U.S. labor force. However, far fewer women than men work in the manufacturing sector – only 24.8% of workers employed in manufacturing durable goods are women.

From a purely economic point of view, these numbers just don’t add up.

As jobs at manufacturing companies become more high-tech, employers are facing a shortage of applicants to fill these positions.

According to a study by The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, the automotive industry, energy and resources, aerospace and defense and industrial products have been especially hard hit by the skills gap in US manufacturing – with the most serious shortages for skilled production workers, engineers, and scientists.

These are not low-paying jobs – according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), it’s quite the opposite. In 2011, the average annual compensation for manufacturing workers was $77,060 (including benefits) which was about $17k higher than salaries averaged across all industries.

So if the manufacturing industry has an increasing number of openings for high-tech jobs that pay well above average, why do women still represent such a small percentage of the manufacturing workforce?


One Possible Explanation is That Gender Bias is Still Alive and Well

Surveys of young women entering the job market indicate that they rarely consider manufacturing as a career on their own. (This can change if they have personal experience in the manufacturing industry, more on that later.)

Gender bias works both ways. According to a recent New York Times article, a significant number of unemployed men looking for work are not pursuing careers in the growing healthcare field, such as caregivers for the elderly, because they perceive these roles as ‘pink-collar’ jobs better suited to women.


women dominant industries
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics


Employers striving to improve their diversity and inclusion (D&I) hiring have found that even subtle shifts in the language used for open job positions can have an effect on the relative number of men and women job applicants.

Job-search company, Textio, found that job descriptions for home health aide positions tended to use ‘feminine’ keywords like ‘sympathetic’ and ’empathy’ while jobs for cartographers used ‘masculine’ terms like ‘forces,’ ‘exceptional,’ and ‘superior.’

Recruiters are discovering that revising these phrases to be more gender neutral affects the relative percentage of men and women applying for jobs.


How Can We Encourage More Women to Enter the Manufacturing Sector?

Unfortunately, antagonism toward women working in manufacturing and high-tech industries is a reality.


Isis Wegner


If you need a reminder of that, think back a couple years to the case of Isis Wenger, a young female engineer working at OneLogin, who was featured in a recruiting advertisement. Her photo set off a firestorm in social media, where people questioned (presumably on appearances alone) whether she could be a real engineer or not.

A survey by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute found that over half of the women surveyed think there is a perception that the manufacturing industry culture was biased toward men — and this is the primary reason women are underrepresented in manufacturing.

The survey found other barriers to women choosing a career in the manufacturing sector as well:


  1. Many women are looking for flexible work practices which would allow them a better work/life balance.

    The manufacturing industry has lagged in this area, but it needs to catch up.


  1. Women want customized learning and development programs, (such as continuing education) to help improve their skills and help them advance in their career.

    Unfortunately, the manufacturing industry overall does not have a good track record in promoting women to higher positions.


  1. Women place a lot of value on the visibility of key leaders (e.g. are there women holding top positions) as well as the need for career guidance, such as mentorship and sponsorship programs when making career decisions.

    As a result, manufacturing companies wanting to hire more women will need to step up their mentoring and sponsorship programs to compensate for the relative few number of women in the top ranks of manufacturing companies.


What Can Be Done to Encourage More Women to Join the Manufacturing Workforce?

Clearly, lots of work needs to be done to change the perception of manufacturing as a career choice for women.


Mary T. Barra
Mary T. Barra – Chief Executive Officer of General Motors – image by LinkedIn


Fortunately, there are quite a few new resources available to help close the gap, including industry groups, initiatives & programs, summits and conferences that promote the role of women in manufacturing — as well as educational initiatives (like STEM) and federal/state programs designed to increase the role of women in the workplace overall.


Industry Groups Supporting Women in Manufacturing

While traditional industry groups like The Manufacturing Institute, APICS (Supply Chain Council) and SME (for small to medium sized companies) have established programs aimed at promoting women in the industry, a new trade association, Women in Manufacturing (WIM), has formed to tackling manufacturing issues head on.

WIM has an active website, blog, and a quarterly publication designed to bring women together to mentor one another and promote education programs that encourage young women to consider manufacturing as a worthy career choice.


Initiatives and Summits for Women in Manufacturing

As was highlighted in the job surveys mentioned above, mentorship and special education programs have an important role to play in helping increase awareness of manufacturing as a rewarding career choice for women.


The annual STEP Ahead Awards hosted by the Manufacturing Institute celebrates the role of women leadership in manufacturing.


The Manufacturing Institute (with sponsorship by APICS) has created the STEP Ahead program, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Production, to recognize and encourage the contributions that women make to manufacturing today. This year’s fifth annual STEP Ahead Awards program will take place on April 19, 2017.

APICS and The Manufacturing Institute also teamed up to create a toolkit, called LEAD, which outlines ways that women in manufacturing can become ambassadors and mentors in the manufacturing supply chain sector.

The Women in Manufacturing organization organizes an annual Women in Manufacturing Summit as well as a Leadership Lab (in partnership with Case Western Reserve University) designed to mentor a select group of emerging women leaders in the manufacturing sector.


Other important initiatives for young women (and young men)

The following special programs are designed to help promote careers in tech fields, including manufacturing


  • National Girls Collaborative Project (NGCP)
    January 31, 2017, National Mentoring Month: Utilizing Mentorship to Empower Girls in STEM






Education and Learning Opportunities that Support Future Careers in Manufacturing Industries

STEM education programs at your local school have a critical role to play in encouraging young women to consider careers in science and technology, including manufacturing.

Similarly, the rise of Makerspaces across the US provides an important resource for young women to learn how to apply their skills to build and create things.

While not an educational institution in the traditional sense, the company Adafruit, founded by Limor Fried in her MIT dorm room, provides many educational resources, including online tutorials designed to encourage young women (and young men) to learn skills to build and program devices ranging from wearable sensors to interactive robots.


Federal and State Programs to Promote Women Entrepreneurs

There are many federal and state programs designed to encourage promoting women entrepreneurs to start their own companies (Women Owned Business, or WOB). See our recent article on how to apply to be a GSA contractor for more information on the Federal programs.

The Women in Apprenticeable and Nontraditional Occupations Act (WANTO) funds local grants to community-based organizations who provide women job training necessary to pursue “non-traditional” jobs, like careers in manufacturing. Visit the National Center for Women’s Employment Equity (NCWEE) website for more information.

You can also search for programs and incentives established by individual states using the government’s SelectUSA website.


Formaspace Salutes Women in Manufacturing


women in manufacturing
image by


In our view, the time has come for women in manufacturing.

As an equality opportunity company, our focus is on promoting women across the board.

If you are interested in joining us here at Formaspace, we’d love to hear from you.



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