Why We Should Prepare Our Daughters (and Our Sons) for Modern Manufacturing Jobs

As the gender gap in manufacturing grows, young women miss out on challenging, high-tech career options and employers miss out on a wealth of talent.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out that even though women are a bigger part of the overall workforce, they make up only 27 percent of the manufacturing workforce, down from down from 32 percent in the early 1990s.

“Women tend to be less interested in engineering than men, which is a big skill in manufacturing. Women also tend to take less math courses,” said Journal reporter James Hagerty. “Manufacturers are going to have to make the case to young women that manufacturing can be a very good career.”

A number of factors cause women to be less interested in manufacturing, one of the most important among them being perceptions of the field. Many people think manufacturing jobs involve heavy-duty physical labor in dark and sometimes dangerous factories. In her book, “Grace and Grit,” Lilly Ledbetter describes these kinds of conditions at the Goodyear tire factory where she worked throughout the 1970s. On top of workplace injuries, noxious chemicals, and unrelenting harassment, she discovered she was being paid thousands less than her male coworkers. Her lawsuit made it to the Supreme Court and was eventually the catalyst for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

That unwelcoming image of mid-century manufacturing has stuck around. But manufacturing today has changed a great deal since Ledbetter’s day. Women and men working in manufacturing today are critical to the innovation cycle. They design parts, operate robots, and act as key advisors on the practical aspects of new designs or processes. The work is highly skilled and often requires sophisticated computer and engineering knowledge.

Those specialized skills are the focus of the White House’s recently announced new public-private manufacturing hub in North Carolina. It’s the first in a series of institutes Obama has planned. This one is a group of businesses and universities in Raleigh that, using federal funding, will focus on connecting research with manufacturing. The idea is to apply semiconductor technology to developing energy efficient devices for cars, electronics, and motors.

Obama sees improving the manufacturing industry as key to raising middle class incomes. With certificate training, manufacturing salaries can start around $40,000. And as Hagerty pointed out, these jobs offer better pay and benefits on average than service jobs, particularly jobs in retail or food service, which tend to attract a lot of women.

But these middle-tier jobs often go unfilled because employers can’t find qualified applicants. In a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article Anthony P. Carnevale, an economist and head of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said that even though the manufacturing sector will shrink by a million jobs over the next decade, it will still experience a huge labor shortfall as 2 million workers retire without enough new, trained workers to take their place.

One young women who may be poised to do just that is Sarah Hertzler, a high school junior in South Fayette, Pennsylvania. who fell in love with engineering after joining a club for girls interested in building rockets and robots.

“Sometimes when you think about engineering, you think of grease and nuts and bolts,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “But it’s about ideas and designing.”

Like many schools in the Pittsburgh region, South Fayette High School emphasizes computational thinking and creativity in its curriculum. It also gives students access to lots of technology. The region is ripe with opportunities for girls like Sarah—from Girls of Steel, Pittsburgh’s all-girls robotics team, to the Girls Math & Science Partnership, where girls meet with mentors and explore STEM careers.

And when it comes time to choose what kind of career to pursue, the work of the Pittsburgh Technology Council and others ensures they’ll have a world of STEM job options open to them.

Published January 22, 2014