Written by Melissa Basa, IMEC Regional Manager
With more than 500,000 unfilled manufacturing jobs in the United States in recent years, much has been hypothesized and written about the cause(s). If we consider the words of Warren Buffet, who in 2013 told Fortune Magazine that America has built our prosperity using only 50% of our talent and left an entire gender out of the equation for most of our history, we see that a solution is very much within our reach. But balancing the gender equation and bringing more women into manufacturing doesn’t require the same approach as increasing the ranks of men. Let’s look at an example (or three) from my Alma Mater.
In 2016, Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering was the first US national research university to graduate an undergraduate class of engineers that was more than 50% female. Compare this to the national average that has yet to break 20%. But gender parity didn’t happen for Thayer overnight and it certainly didn’t happen without intentional cultural changes. I believe Thayer’s successes could be those of America’s shop floors as well.
1. Comfortable learning environments
Thayer makes it clear they don’t necessarily expect their students to come to them with building or design experience. They also recognize the traditional machine shop environment can be an intimidating place to learn. So they’ve developed a one-on-one skills development program that introduces engineering students to CAD software, fabrication tools, sensors, and actuators. Many of the more progressive manufacturers with whom I work have developed their own in-house training programs, but few recognize the value of one-on-one instruction and comfortable learning environments, both of which benefit females in particular. When given access to comfortable instruction and allowed time to develop skills through hands-on training, women are as capable as men of learning the high-tech skills required to be productive operators.
2. Job fluidity
Thayer teaches what they like to refer to as “liberal engineering,” which encourages students to solve real world problems with technical engineering skills. This helps engineering appeal to more females since they can apply their skills to the causes about which they are passionate and also provides a more diverse skill set for flexibility and use throughout their career. It is inherently less restricting than a traditional engineering education. I believe more women, especially those who are mechanically inclined, would give manufacturing a try if they believed they would be able to apply their entire skill set in their daily work and if they were assured of paths to other roles at appropriate times in their development. The rigidity and limitations of traditional shop floor roles is potentially a deal-breaker for employees of any gender.
3. Opportunities to make a positive difference
At Thayer, students are allowed to participate in a diverse set of educational experiences and work on the problems of their choosing, opportunities that are particularly appealing to females considering engineering. Women in manufacturing are less likely to be motivated by meeting hour-by-hour production goals, but seek fulfillment in their work by making lasting and impactful change. Allowing, not just women, but all employees to produce product for the betterment of society, empowering them to improve their own work environment, and providing leadership and improvement opportunities will bring up the level of the entire workforce and encourage the other 50% of the potential workforce to get involved in manufacturing.
Thayer still has some work to do including increasing the number of female professors and role models on campus, but their progress to-date is ground-breaking. I look forward to the day when American manufacturers are able to more easily fill their factories with the right people and hope that many of them can be women.
Learn more about Melissa Basa, IMEC Regional Manager.
http://engineering.dartmouth.edu/magazine/our-place, Spring 2015
http://engineering.dartmouth.edu/news/dartmouth-is-first-university-to-graduate-more-women-engineers-than-men, June 2016
http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2013/05/02/warren-buffett-is-bullish-on-women/, May 2013