Finding Success in an Unlikely Sector
It shed more than 2 million jobs in the recession. But manufacturing has roared back to become one of the fastest growing industries in the United States today, according to the market research firm IBISWorld.
Still it remains largely male-dominated. In fact, the percentage of women working in manufacturing has actually dropped in recent decades, even as we've made gains in other sectors. A recent Congressional study found women now account for just 27 percent of U.S. manufacturing jobs, the lowest level since 1971. But for those who do enter the industry, the pay-off can be considerable.
“Today’s manufacturing is not dirty, dark or dangerous,” says Allison Grealis, director of Women in Manufacturing, a professional association offering networking, mentoring and educational opportunities for manufacturing women. “Manufacturing today is much more about brains than brawn.”
Along with being increasingly high-tech, manufacturing jobs are also among the highest-paying, offering a 17-percent premium in compensation over non-manufacturing jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. (The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis found that in 2011, the average manufacturing worker in the United States earned $77,060 annually, compared to the average worker in all industries who earned $60,168.) And there are less quantifiable perks too, from robust health and retirement benefits to flexible hours.
Anna Wald, Quality Manager, Wyoming Machine, Inc., Stacy, Minnesota
How she made the switch: Underemployed as a store manager in the 1980s, I was not able to provide financially for my three children, for whom I was the sole provider. The traditional work for women in my community with my skills didn’t pay a living wage. I was directed to a non-traditional training program through the state of Minnesota, and because I grew up on a farm and have always enjoyed working with my hands, welding interested me. I returned to secondary education and received an industrial welding degree, and began working as a welder in 1988.
Why she stayed: Working in manufacturing allows me to learn new things and satisfies my need to build something new. It’s very rewarding to me to see the finished product, and I’m not afraid to work hard. Also, manufacturing opportunities are located in my community. I don’t have to work weekends and can spend time with my family. After 12 years welding in a manufacturing production environment, I moved into process engineering work and then quality work. I am now the quality manager for Wyoming Machine and a certified weld inspector by the American Welding Society.
I’ve enjoyed a competitive salary and full benefits, and I strongly believe that if I would not have made the choices I did when I did, my children (now gainfully employed, college grads) may not have gone down the path that has, to this point, given them success. I am very thankful and fortunate for the opportunities I was allowed in my life.
Siobhan Ryan, Sales Account Manager, Art Technologies, Hamilton, Ohio
How she made the switch: I studied hotel management in college and then got a master’s in public accounting and my CPA. I took a 20-year hiatus from my career to raise children, but I’m back in the real world, working for a manufacturing company and loving it! It was like walking on Mars the first time I toured the plant floor at my company when I was hired to do accounting. But I was eventually promoted to sales, and now I sell metal stampings to a global market and know every employee, machine, process, raw material and end product or potential end product.
Why she stayed: Arriving at work in a golf shirt and a pair of khakis beats the suits and high heels of Manhattan; it’s as fast and easy as putting on my old parochial school uniform. And the team of engineers, press operators, purchasing agents and operations managers have such a wonderful camaraderie and sense of group achievement, compared to the career-jockeying I’ve seen in large corporations with employees ranked each year for value and waiting for the next downsizing. It’s rewarding to be part of manufacturing a component that will make a car run for a family, a solar panel turn to face the sun or a school bus deliver a child to school.
I think manufacturing is the new frontier for young women and a tremendous growth career as the United States roars back in the global marketplace. I’m now encouraging my 17-year-old daughter to study industrial engineering or supply chain management in college.
Christine Benz, Training Manager, TRUMPF, Inc., Farmington, Connecticut
How she made the switch: Before, I worked as a medical-technical assistant in doctors’ offices and hospitals. But I wanted to develop and build the technical equipment I used as a medical-technical assistant, rather than just being their end user. I started my career in manufacturing as a development engineer in TRUMPF Inc.’s laser development lab. I later worked in project engineering and now head the training department, focusing on the training and education of our customers and employees.
Why she stayed: My job requirements change constantly as the machine-tool technology evolves. This forces me to learn continuously and to keep enhancing my skills, which I enjoy greatly. My company also allowed me work flexible hours when needed to balance work life and family and kids. TRUMPF provides me with a highly diversified work environment. Getting results in diversified teams is exciting, stimulating and provides endless learning possibilities.
I am convinced that the manufacturing industry benefits greatly from female views and talents. I feel many women wind up with typical “female jobs” because “this is how it’s always been done.” Keeping an open mind and leaving the beaten path might lead to an exciting and satisfying career.
Linda Deaton, Production Planner, SCA Tissue, Barton, Alabama
How she made the switch: After three years as a high school math teacher, I decided I did not want to continue my career in education, but I was not sure what I wanted to do. I just wanted a job that I enjoyed doing that paid enough to support my family. I thought about all the jobs I had in the past and the things I liked and disliked about them. I realized that I enjoyed working with people, problem solving and hands-on work. When I saw the job posting for production technicians at SCA, the job requirements were a perfect fit for me. I was hired as a production technician in 2003 and eventually moved into a quality technician role, then was promoted to production planner.
Why she stayed: My job is fast-paced and changes daily. There are always challenges. My hours are flexible, which is very beneficial while trying to balance my career and family. And I enjoy what I am doing, which has a positive effect on my entire life. Many people think of manufacturing jobs as unskilled, labor-intensive jobs that require a lot of heavy lifting. That is not always the case. With the technological advances in this industry, the jobs are becoming more high-tech and computerized. Women are often very detail oriented, making them perfect candidates for manufacturing quality products. Manufacturing jobs also pay well, have great benefits and offer opportunities for advancement.
Lesa Nichols, Owner, Lesa Nichols Consulting, Louisville, Kentucky
How she made the switch: I’ve always been curious, and both my dad and stepdad were plant managers and chemical engineers. So when I was working in public relations on my company’s Toyota account, being out on the production floor was just exciting and interesting to me. After a few years writing speeches for the head of the Toyota plant in Kentucky and doing other communications projects, I had a hunger to get closer to the stuff that was actually happening, not just talking about it. I joined Toyota as a production manager and stayed there 21 years. My last position was assistant general manager of Toyota’s operations and management development division. Now I’m consulting with other manufacturing companies to help them implement effective manufacturing processes and procedures.
Why she stayed: I love to learn, and working in manufacturing at Toyota was like learning on steroids. I was exposed to so much. If you are curious, persistent and open, the company will teach you anything and everything you want to learn.When we’re younger, many of us don’t necessarily know what’s out there in a career. We just assume you go to school to learn and then you go to work. But real learning can continue to take place over a lifetime if you’re in a career where problems are constantly solved and change is constantly happening.
Traci Tapani, Co-President, Wyoming Machine Company, Stacy, Minnesota
How she made the switch: I worked in the banking industry in international trade finance, and my sister, Lori [co-president of Wyoming Machine], worked in public accounting as a CPA. When our father was doing some estate planning in the early 1990s, he asked if we would be interested in owning his company, which he started in 1974. While we had never intended to work in the business, we realized we were both interested. We became owners in 1994.
Why she stayed: Both Lori and I are raising children, and having a job where you have fairly regular hours is really helpful. I think it is the same whether you are in management or working on the shop floor. We can participate in after-school activities. And the job is interesting: There are always changes, challenges and improvement opportunities in a manufacturing company. We work with interesting companies who are constantly designing new products for us to manufacture, and we have to continually evolve to meet their changing needs. It's an exciting field.
Diana Elrod, Manager of Quality and Metallurgy, Waupaca Foundry, Etowah, Tennessee
How she made the switch: Before, I worked in restaurants and retail, and I first got into manufacturing to have a steady, generous income. Then after I began working, I thought, “Hey, I can do this just as well as anyone else.” I always wanted to be the one who could make a difference in an organization's success. I started as a line operator, then moved into an administrative assistant role. From there, I advanced to engineer and now serve as manager of quality and metallurgy.
Why she stayed: I love that I can have an impact on the success of both the company I work for and the personal development of employees who work for me. I was there once, and I am appreciative that someone wanted to develop me. I like to give back. Also, I’ve been able to earn my BA while working full time. Women who are grounded and want to give back should think about manufacturing. It's a great way to be a positive influence and role model for other young women, and it's an avenue to obtain a [higher] education, one that's often paid for by your employer.