Manufacturing Resilience: Attracting Women for a Stronger Workforce

Woman working in manufacturing

Manufacturing in the U.S. has a talent problem. The number of vacant positions as of February 2022 stands at 855,000. Projections by Deloitte suggest that the number could swell to a staggering 2.1 million by 2030. Yet even as positions go unfilled, the industry has a vast talent resource that has to date been inadequately leveraged – women. 

Manufacturing Is Changing Rapidly — But Not When It Comes to Gender Diversity

While women make up more than half of the available workforce, they number less than a third of manufacturing. Part of it may be self-perpetuating -- a cycle of a historically male-dominated field bringing in more males. But experts rail against gender stereotyping as the driver. This isn’t a “jobs for boys” issue, wrote one industry expert on Forbes. Rather, the industry has historically fallen short on appealing to a female workforce. Of the 3.5 million women working in the field, 1 in 4 are considering leaving the industry, according to Deloitte. These figures are particularly staggering when you consider that 79% of manufacturers cited the inability to attract and retain a quality workforce as a concern, despite the fact that wages in the industry are at an all-time high.

Tech Is Reshaping Manufacturing 

All this in a field that’s experiencing a technological revolution. Alongside labor shortages and turnover, Deloitte ranks the acceleration of digital skills as one of manufacturing’s top challenges, with long-term profitability hinging on an employer’s ability to adapt – and adapt fast. And the new technological savvy is having a side effect: namely heated competition for the industry’s talent. Tech skills are in demand. And as turnover rages across fields, the very proficiencies manufacturing employees are building are drawing the hiring attention of giants like Silicon Valley. It’s an especially concerning problem, says Deloitte, since “Manufacturing ranks behind technology, health care, communications, energy and financial services as preferred career options.” 

It means for the U.S. to keep its place as a global leader in manufacturing, the industry itself needs a transformation, starting with the way it recruits and retains. And a big focus needs to be on women.  

It’s Women in Manufacturing or No Manufacturing

In fact, the need for more women isn’t just about numbers. Women consistently provide significant business gains in this industry. Research shows that gender diversity in manufacturing leads to greater innovation and increased profitability. The benefits of women in leadership positions are even greater. A study by Deloitte found that leadership teams that include women help manufacturing companies provide more diverse perspectives and creative solutions, while also experiencing greater profitability. So the addition of more women offers the industry possibilities on multiple fronts; no wonder The Manufacturing Institute’s STEP Women’s Initiative calls narrowing the gender gap the industry’s largest talent opportunity. 

But what can individual companies do to meet their workforce needs?

Transformational Change In Manufacturing

To find a solution to the talent shortage, companies and industry organizations need to take more intentional steps to create a talent pipeline, reshape employer-provided benefits to fit the changing needs of workers, and provide meaningful opportunities for career advancement.

Women Come to Manufacturing Through Education

Education is the most powerful tool available to bring more women into manufacturing. In fact, 48% of women who come into the field do so as a result of a STEM program, compared to just 13% of men. While the number of women studying STEM subjects is rising, the talent pipeline is not meeting demand. If manufacturing is going to solve its gender diversity problem, more needs to be done to provide girls and women opportunities to pursue careers in STEM fields.

The Right Professional Development Helps Women Stay In Manufacturing 

Training opportunities represent the industry’s single most effective strategy for individual career advancement and employee retention. However, many companies fail to provide the kind of training women specifically value most — leadership training. While 44% of women surveyed by the industry group Women in Manufacturing stated a desire for leadership training (more than any other type of training), only 20% of companies in the survey actually offer it.

Benefits Must Change with Evolving Worker Needs 

Another area of opportunity is flexibility – a benefit Accenture calls a key consideration for winning back frontlines, and a prime example of how manufacturing could benefit from change. But for an industry notoriously tied to hard schedules, flexibility will need to look different than it does for knowledge workers. Instead of defining flexibility based on where people work, it will need to be defined by how people work, leveraging options such as schedule choice that increase autonomy for employees and demonstrate trust. Such programs could go a long way toward retaining employees, and will speak especially loudly to women who most often bear the brunt of scheduling challenges related to childcare, elder care, and other personal responsibilities. 

To Manufacture Resilience, Recognize Women’s Needs

It’s clear that manufacturing needs to recruit from all available talent. As one industry insider put it, “Limiting your manufacturing workforce to just men really limits the number of applicants you could bring in.” 

To ensure success, manufacturing companies and industry groups must take decisive steps to create gender diversity among workers. This effort requires a commitment to interrupting the cycles of high turnover and the chronic underrepresentation of women in the manufacturing labor force. By taking targeted action, such as increasing women’s access to STEM education, providing leadership training, and redoubling efforts to offer the benefits women need to succeed in the workplace, employers can move toward hiring and retaining the talent they need.

Woman working in manufacturing

Subscribe to the On the Horizon Newsletter