Filling the gap

Posted on Sep 9, 2012 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

Holly Putterlik of Fond du Lac realizes she’s in rare company.

Starting her third semester in the welding program at Moraine Park Technical College, Putterlik isn’t worried about being one of 11 females in the school’s welding program, which has nearly 120 students, or that once she graduates and lands a job, it’s likely she’ll be surrounded by men.

“I was drawn to welding because I like working with my hands and I can make a good living from it,” says Putterlik, 25. “When I first started – that first day of class – I walked in and there were 10 guys staring at me. It was a bit nerve-racking at first, but now it doesn’t bother me at all.”

Women in manufacturing are few and far between. An estimated 30 percent of all manufacturing jobs are filled by women, according to the trade organization Women in Manufacturing. At a time when manufacturers find it difficult to fill skilled labor positions, the time has never been better to get more women into the industry, according to manufacturers and educators. But women entering manufacturing face numerous hurdles, including fighting stereotypes and a lack of awareness of the opportunities.

“Women make up half of the labor pool and it’s one we haven’t tapped into yet (for manufacturing). We’re missing the boat,” says Pam Mazur, associate dean at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College’s advanced manufacturing program.

Where are the women?
There’s a definite gender gap when looking at enrollment in manufacturing related courses at the region’s four technical colleges. Some programs have no female students while others have just a handful. To address the imbalance, colleges have created non-traditional occupation programs geared to getting women into programs such as welding and advanced manufacturing technology and getting men into health care and administrative assistant programs.

Lakeshore Technical College and NWTC each offer mini-programs or boot camps where people can try out a program and see if they like it.

Patti Saunders, a non-traditional occupations program assistant at LTC, says the college’s mini-courses are a way to let women try out different careers before signing up for a class. “The course can be the hook and then we reel them in,” she says.

Last spring, NWTC held a hands-on welding course for women that was well received, says Mazur. “It’s a vicious cycle. If there aren’t any women in a class or course, it may discourage other women from taking it,” she says. “You need women in these careers so other women and girls can see them and say ‘I can do that,’” she says.

That’s why some colleges reach out to middle school students and raise awareness about manufacturing careers. “When girls are younger, they may like manufacturing type activities where they build and create, but become disinterested as they age,” Mazur says.

NWTC recently had students from the Boys & Girls’ Club come by for a presentation while Moraine Park had a GEMS (Girls Engineering Math Science) program for middle school students. And Fox Valley Technical College had several summer camps designed to boost girls’ interest in science and engineering careers, including a girls-only robotics camp and GirlTech, which allows middle school students to explore careers that use technology.

NWTC’s Mazur says the new CNC mobile lab, which visits area high schools, is also a boon to attracting both female and male students to the program. “They go in and see all of that technology and they think ‘wow.’ It sheds a whole new light on manufacturing and what it is,” she says. “The more we expose them to these careers, the better. We need to do a better job at raising awareness about the opportunities in these careers.”

Marcia Arndt, dean of manufacturing technology at Moraine Park, says society plays a role in teens not being interested in a manufacturing career.

“We’re not really raised today to do a lot of work with our hands. I grew up on a farm and did lots of things with my hands. I saw my dad welding in the barn. A lot of people today don’t have that exposure,” she says. “There’s also this perception out there that manufacturing is a dirty, mindless profession. It’s not. Today’s plants are high-tech and very clean and you’re using your brain all day. You just don’t put a cog on a wheel anymore.”

Saunders says there is something out there that is drawing students to manufacturing: the job postings. “I’ve had people come in and say they are interested in something because they keep seeing these jobs advertised and they hear in the media there is this big demand for workers,” she says.

On the job
Women aren’t the only ones shying away from careers in manufacturing. Many companies struggle to find enough skilled workers and some of that is attributed to the industry’s poor reputation, says Judy Stanton, a non-traditional occupations program assistant at LTC.

“The economic downturn led some people to not consider manufacturing as a career, but now there is more demand and more people are looking at careers,” she says.

Saunders adds that some people don’t look at manufacturing as a career option because they worry about being laid off, but that some women shy away “because they don’t feel they can do the work either skills-wise or physically. We need to get over that.”

LTC grad Tracie Kaderabek didn’t let any of that stop her from pursuing first a welding degree and then a mechanical design degree. Since graduating last spring, she’s worked at M-B Companies in New Holstein as a mechanical designer in the attachment division.

“I’ve worked in manufacturing for 15 years. In my career, I’ve usually been the only woman in the room, but I don’t let that bother me. My mindset is that I can do anything a guy can do,” she says, adding she went to school to get a degree after being laid off from a non-skilled position.

Kaderabek adds some men don’t set out the welcome mat to women joining the crew. “I have noticed there are some men who look down on women and think they can do the job better, but I take that as a challenge. If you can do it, why can’t I?” she says.

But with more women enrolled in courses, men learn from the get-go that women are just as qualified as they are to do the job, Arndt says. “Women have an attention to detail that is very beneficial in some careers, such as welding. Women, to some degree, need to prove themselves. Everyone needs to do that when they start a job, but especially women.”

Arndt, who worked in manufacturing for five years herself before pursuing a career in education, says women need to have a sense of humor and not take things too personally.

“You need to have strong self-esteem,” she says, adding the college regularly brings in women working in manufacturing or the trades to talk to students. “We had a female welder come in and she said the best thing you can do is be flexible and stay strong and confident. Don’t let negativity pull you down.”

Employers know the value of women workers and are doing what they can to make today’s factories and plants a welcoming place, Arndt says.

No job is perfect and Stanton says women should focus on an industry’s positives. “Manufacturing jobs provide family-supporting wages along with health insurance and education reimbursement. You can also get into the workforce more immediately and there are so many job opportunities out there,” she says.

Getting more women involved
The Manufacturing Institute is partnering with Deloitte, University of Phoenix and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers on the STEP initiative (women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Production). The STEP initiative will take a closer look at the role of women in the manufacturing industry through Education, Research and Recognition. The STEP initiative is the call for action to transform the face of today’s manufacturing talent. Establishing a formal initiative committed to attracting, advancing and retaining female talent in the manufacturing industry endorsed by top leadership will:
• Establish a commitment to workforce development by attracting, retaining and advancing female talent in the manufacturing industry
• Lead to a change in the manufacturing industry by developing a more diverse workforce
• Demonstrate manufacturing’s commitment to the importance of advancing women in the industry
• Change perceptions and create new opportunities for women in manufacturing

Event puts focus on women in manufacturing
Women involved in manufacturing from around the country will gather next month in Milwaukee for the 2nd Annual Women in Manufacturing Summit.

The networking and educational event is designed for women who work in manufacturing and want to share perspectives, improve leadership and communication skills, engage in mentoring programs and network with other in the industry, says Allison Grealis, director of Women in Manufacturing, an executive networking group powered by the Precision Metalforming Association (PMA). “It’s really about bringing women together to share perspectives and grow,” she says.

The event will be held at The Pfister Hotel on Oct. 29-30 and consists of educational tracks, roundtables, networking opportunities and speakers. Gayle Tauber, founder of Kashi Company, and Gail Lione, chief compliance officer, executive vice president, general counsel and secretary at Harley-Davidson, are the event’s keynote speakers.

Grealis says the event got its start in November 2009 when several PMA members attending the FABTECH in Chicago gathered together and started talking about their shared challenges as well as best practices. In 2011, the group expanded to include all women employed in the manufacturing sector.

Grealis says Women in Manufacturing will soon have an online directory and will look at sponsoring other networking events to help women connect and grow. For more information about the Women in Manufacturing event, visit