Why Women Are Essential to the Future of US Manufacturing

On March 18, the Aspen Institute Manufacturing and Society in the 21st Century program, partnering with the Association for Women in Science and the Bertelsmann Foundation, will explore why women are an important factor in filling US manufacturing shortages in a focused panel discussion, "Filling the Skills Gap in Manufacturing: The Untapped Resource" at noon EST. You can watch the event live on our Live at the Aspen Institute page. Below is a related piece co-written by Tom Duesterberg, executive director of the Manufacturing and Society in the 21st Century program at the Aspen Institute. It was originally posted on Huffington Post

Manufacturers regularly and consistently report a shortage of skilled and semi-skilled workers for their firms. Shortages are most pronounced for skilled production workers, scientists, and engineers, and least evident for unskilled production workers. Unemployment in this sector is already below the national average (5.6 percent versus 6.5 percent), but the US Department of Labor reports that there are about 300,000 job openings in manufacturing. Estimates based on employer surveys tend to be higher than this figure.

As US manufacturing becomes increasingly sophisticated and demands higher levels of education and basic science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills, the performance of our education system in responding to existing and projected future shortages remains weak by most measures. Yet one untapped resource to address the problem remains in plain view: women are increasingly outperforming men in acquiring advanced skills, but are under-represented in both the manufacturing workforce and in the specialized STEM fields most in demand in today's industrial economy.

In the United States, women consistently outperform men in earning higher education credentials. In the first decade of the new millennium, women accounted for about 62 percent of all associate degrees, 57 percent of bachelor's degrees, 63 percent of master's degrees, and 53 percent of Ph.D. degrees. Even though modern manufacturing in the United States is increasingly moving toward broader use of advanced technologies and processes, including on the factory floor, women overall only represent 25 to 27 percent of the workforce. Moreover, according to the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress, it appears that women have lost some share of the manufacturing workforce since the recovery from the Great Recession began in 2010.

Most manufacturers recognize the imperative to tap this under-utilized resource both to meet growth requirements as the sector expands and becomes more dependent on technology and advanced processes, and to replace an aging workforce which lost a whole generation of new workers in the last three decades when growth was challenged by new global competition. But progress has been slow in attracting this under-utilized workforce to manufacturing.

According to work done by Deloitte for the Manufacturing Institute, women represent 25 percent of the manufacturing workforce, but only 16 percent of executive officers, and both these figures are well below the average for all US business.

Part of the reason for this state of affairs goes to education choices: girls are still not equally represented in STEM fields. This despite the fact that jobs in STEM fields on average pay 26 percent more than non-STEM fields. Among women, according to the US Department of Commerce, the differential is even greater: they earn 33 percent more than their female peers in other jobs. Six of the most popular fields among men for master's degrees are relevant to manufacturing, including business, engineering, and computer science, compared to only one (business administration) among women. Women account for only 24 percent of the STEM workforce, using Bureau of the Census data.

Recently released data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) provides revealing insight about the motivation, focus, and achievement of girls. The test is for 15-year-olds, and compares various measures across 70 countries. The data from 2012 shows that in general, girls outperform boys by a strong margin in reading in most countries, including the United States, and boys do slightly better in mathematics, while the two genders are nearly equal in science literacy results. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which administers the test: "The gender gap in mathematics mirrors the gender gap in student's drive, motivation, and beliefs." The performance differences fade when motivation and confidence are equal. These results hold for the United States as well.

One can easily conclude from these test results, as does the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress, that girls are given early signals that lead them in directions other than the basic STEM building blocks, which in turn are the most salient skills needed for careers in manufacturing. Even when women go into sciences, it is most often in what might be considered traditional fields, notably the health care fields. This is likely partly due to cultural signals, but also to perceptions that manufacturing — even though it encompasses exciting and challenging areas like aerospace exploration, biomaterials, and nanotechnology — is a sector without a bright future. Long-standing cultural stereotypes of male-dominated companies in manufacturing and in the educational fields associated with that sector have tended to deter girls from entering these fields. Despite advances in gender parity in recent decades, these stereotypes and perceptions that women do not do well in manufacturing may raise doubts among girls about their abilities and stand in the way of strong test scores in STEM fields, according to the American Psychological Association.

Any improvement in some of these discouraging numbers about women in STEM fields and in manufacturing will require a concerted effort over a long period of time, but it must start early, when girls are considering which academic field to pursue and processing cultural signals about careers. In addition to efforts to inspire and motivate girls to go into STEM fields, manufacturers need to increase the ranks of women in leadership roles, provide a supportive work environment, and encourage long-term mentoring of promising women. Mentoring includes formal, informal, peer and group relationships and needs strong and sustained support from company leadership. The strategy to improve STEM numbers for women also includes being aware of barriers, changing policies and practices to create a supportive work environment, and building accountability. Attention also should be given to exciting opportunities for skilled production workers, which often do not require a full four-year college degree. Apprenticeship programs should not be overlooked, especially since they can help underprivileged students pay for their education and help dispel the notion — which has long outlived its usefulness or its tether to reality — of manufacturing jobs as "dark, dirty, and dangerous" manual labor occupations.

Econometric work done at the Aspen Institute and elsewhere has shown that one of the main barriers to a strong resurgence in the sector is the need to bolster the pipeline of skilled workers. Manufacturing would greatly benefit from a more diverse workforce, which provides rewarding careers for women who are such an important part of the skilled workforce. Now is the time to focus on this challenge.

*This piece was co-written by Tom Duesterberg, executive director of the Manufacturing and Society in the 21st Century program at the Aspen Institute, and Stephanie Vaughan, marketing director and on the Board of Directors at Fabritek, Inc. and Winchester Tool, LLC, and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Phoenix.