Thirty years ago, it was considered unusual for women to rise to a leadership position in manufacturing. Things change. For many young women — and men — now entering manufacturing, gender is really a non-issue.
What is at issue, however, is the skills gap. There are open jobs and people looking for jobs, but applicants often don’t have the skill sets needed. Manufacturers should take a hard look at the applicant pool and ask themselves why most applicants are still young men. Educators should ask how they can get more girls and young women interested and engaged in science, technology, engineering and math.
During October’s Manufacturing First Expo & Conference, three women who lead New North-area companies — Jan Allman of Fincantieri/Marinette Marine Corp., Kim Bassett of Bassett Mechanical and Rita Cox of Coating Excellence International — will participate on a panel about women in manufacturing. As IOM editor, I spoke with these women and others about what led them to the industry — and how to help draw more women to manufacturing fields.
President, CEO and general manager
Marinette Marine Corp., a Fincantieri company, Marinette
It actually happened in eighth grade: They had this whole assessment where they tested you and determined your strengths and weaknesses. I tested very high in math and science. You’ve got this little career sheet that said if I became a mechanical engineer, I could make up to $60,000 a year. I circled that and I started planning.
I started in manufacturing at age 19. I have 30 years in manufacturing. Upon completing my mechanical engineering degree, I was hired as an engineer by Ford Motor Co. at its Lima, Ohio Engine Plant. In a sea of 100 engineers, there was only one other female.
For young women, I think the world is at your feet because of job demand. These are well-paying jobs. Women must be willing to take risks and step out of their comfort zones to pursue these opportunities.
I find manufacturing extremely rewarding. At Fincantieri/Marinette Marine, we make ships that serve and protect the U.S. Navy as well as our country. Building that product, launching that product, brings a lot of pride and satisfaction that you were part of something great.
We need to be advocates. We’ve been very big at Marinette Marine on internships. We’re supporting Manufacturing Day (Oct. 2) where we’re bringing in students to expose them to manufacturing. That’s our opportunity, to be that advocate.
President and CEO
Bassett Mechanical, Kaukauna
I originally started out with undergraduate and graduate degrees from UW-Madison in speech pathology. I took that up to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Green Bay and worked on rehab and acute care in ICU. I decided that I couldn’t foresee myself doing that for the next 40 years, so that’s when I approached my dad (Bill Bassett, chairman of the board) about coming into the family business.
I always thought he wanted me to be an engineer, and I just don’t have what it takes to be an engineer. So I went back to school and got a master’s degree in management technology with an emphasis in construction. I worked my way through various positions in the organization up to where I am today and I love it. I actually did seven months alongside our tradesmen both in the shop and in the field working with our sheet metal workers, pipefitters and steamfitters. It was great exposure to gain a better understanding of how the systems work and what our customers’ needs were and how to work on a job.
I think the resounding message is women can do any jobs that are out there and are not limited by gender. It’s a natural progression. Here in our Local 400, there are a couple women getting into the trades. You’re starting to see the momentum pick up where women are going into electrical engineering and being sheet metal workers and scientists and those sorts of things.
The cool thing is that STEM options aren’t just science, technology engineering and math, but it’s astronomy and biomedical and electrical engineering and computer and environmental science. We have to educate the young people it’s more than one option.
Lean process manager
KI, Green Bay
My title is lean process manager. I’m in charge of a couple of different areas that produce chairs from fabrication to assembly. I started right out of high school on the floor. But even before that, before I could drive, I started in the office, combining papers for customers. My mom actually works up in corporate, so she wanted me to have a job — I’ve always been a hard worker.
Right after high school, I went to UW-Oshkosh and I started my degree in education. But after a year of working here, I really liked the environment, and I changed my major to supply chain and operations management.
I can see how people from the outside would think, “Oh it’s manufacturing, it’s hard work, it’s heavy stuff, you have to be strong,” but really that’s not the case. There’s a lot of problem solving, a lot of troubleshooting. There’s something different every day — you’re working with different quality issues, safety issues, you’re fixing problems. I like that wide variety of things that I do every day.
President and CEO
Coating Excellence International (cei), Wrightstown
Right out of high school I wanted to be a nurse, but my family just didn’t have the wherewithal to send me to college. At 17 years old, I started in the local manufacturing plant and I was going to work there until I could save enough money.
But I didn’t. I got married, had three children and continued to work in the manufacturing plant. The longer I worked, the more I knew manufacturing was home for me. It presented so many opportunities. You could go the engineering route, the finance route, the supervisory leadership route or you could go into continuous improvement.
I was recruited to Presto Products as the vice president of operations for six manufacturing plants. There were a couple of older gentlemen that felt that was the worst decision in the whole wide world. That was probably my biggest career challenge — to make them understand that I understood manufacturing.
I was in the role for nine months and was presenting at a sales meeting, and talking about visions for manufacturing. One of the two gentlemen that had such heartburn when I was hired came up to speak. He said, “When we hired Rita, I was very boisterous that this was the worst hire that we ever made. And I want to stand here today and say I’m sorry. It was the best decision.”
As leaders we need to take personal interest in our talented employees, being mentors. It’s really about understanding how diverse the field is instead of just thinking you’re coming in and putting widgets together.
I build conveyer belts — I’m a sub-assembler. I’ve been at Nercon a year and four months. I was a stay-at-home mom and wanted to get back out into the workforce, and this is where I ended up. I previously worked at Carver Yachts for 11 years.
I love challenges. I like to keep my mind busy and learning, especially with blueprints and layouts. The people I work with make the environment fun and welcoming.
You do get dirty, I will say that, you do. When I left work (one day last month), I looked like I was rolling around in the dirt and mud. I basically have no nails. But it doesn’t bother me, it’s what I do. And I don’t mind it.
We have a lot of tours come through, and it’s a lot of younger boys from high school. You don’t even see any girls coming through. So I think starting out in high school would be great, and then even in college, and it should be equal opportunity for the boys and girls.
Right now I’m an operations manager in our defense security and aerospace sector. I’ve been in this role for about four or five months, but I’ve been with Plexus for almost nine years.
When I was in high school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I knew I liked math and science, but I wasn’t really sure where I was going to go with it. We had someone come to our school from UW-Platteville and speak about engineering. That really sparked my interest, and I looked into the different kinds of engineering. I think I’m one of the only college students I know that went in with one major and stayed with it the whole time.
It was actually a female that came and spoke to us. I don’t think engineering was even on my radar. I think if you want to catch students’ interest, you have to start younger and you have to get into their classrooms and give them an idea about it. You don’t realize all the different fields that you can end up in.