By Madeline Janis
This column originally appeared in Forbes
Manufacturers in the United States are having a hard time recruiting middle-skilled workers to fill the growing demand for machinists, welders, computer-controlled machine operators and other key positions.
Business leaders talk about this recruitment problem at round-tables, conferences and in articles, debating whether the problem stems from the poor quality of the U.S. school system, the need to invest in job training and apprenticeship programs or a concern about laziness in the American workforce. The worker shortage becomes more alarming given emerging research that shows that manufacturers are expected to create 3.5 million jobs in the next 10 years, with two million of those potentially going unfilled.
A seemingly unrelated statistic may hold part of the answer to this recruitment dilemma. Despite the fact that women represent 51.4 percent of adults in the U.S., they hold only seven percent of middle-skilled manufacturing jobs.
In a gender-neutral world, the absence of women in middle-skilled factory jobs might cause recruitment-conscious business leaders to do some soul-searching about why women don’t work for them. After all, middle skilled manufacturing jobs pay better and have better benefits than jobs in the service sector, where many women work.
“They don’t want to get dirty.” “Women aren’t cut out for that kind of work.” “Women don’t want to work here. We’ve tried.”
These are some of the responses that business leaders often give when asked about why there aren’t more women in front line jobs.
The recent spate of stories connected to the #MeToo movement might hold the real answer to this question. Women would rather work in service jobs because life on the factory floor can be hell .
“Dead Mice, Stolen Tools and Lewd Remarks: Coping With Harassment in Blue-Collar Jobs,” was the title of a recent New York Times article that detailed stories from more than 80 women workers about life on the factory floor, where they described how they had been mistreated and sexually harassed. As one woman facing repeated instances of sexual harassment while working a union job in the Ford Chicago factory said:
“It just was way, way, way, way too much,” she said of the abuses. “Each time that I was taking it, again and again, it just felt like more of me diminishing, just getting smaller until it was just like a shell of a person.”
According to the Chicago Women in Trades, women face hostile and even dangerous conditions in factories where they are trailblazers representing a small percentage of the workforce. Common complaints are that there is “locker room” talk and a “macho culture” that is part of the work environment. While women are more likely to be the targets of harassment, they’re also less likely to report.
Fortunately, some employers and unions are beginning to take action to improve the environment for women in American factories. The United Auto Workers was one of the first unions to include a clause in its contracts with Ford and Chrysler allowing members to file a grievance if sexual harassment occurs.
Employers that have contracts with the Ironworkers Union recently agreed to provide six months paid maternity leave to help recruit more women. A recent employer/union advertising campaign reads, “Want great maternity leave? Become an Ironworker.”
That same Ironworkers Union launched a new campaign, “Be that one guy” referring to male workers who make a special effort to challenge harassment when it happens and otherwise work to create a safe haven for women on the shop floor.
The national non-profit Jobs to Move America created a program called Women Can Build: Re-envisioning Rosie which includes a powerful set of new images showing women from all walks of life welding, wiring, assembling and painting heavy equipment. These images have been used across the country to give women the confidence to start a long-term career in manufacturing.
These strategies and programs have been having some impact. The Sheet Metal Workers Union in New York City implemented these practices and increased women’s representation in new apprenticeship classes from three percent in 2017 to 16 percent in 2018. The Jane Addams Resource Center in Chicago created a special recruitment program for women in manufacturing and increased female participation in their Careers in Manufacturing Program to 20 percent.
If manufacturers want to recruit the most talented workers out there, they need to start by making conditions better in the workplace for women . Excuses like “boys will be boys” and “it’s just locker room talk” do not justify failure to take action and create a healthy workplace where all people feel comfortable and safe.
Manufacturers’ bottom line will appreciate it because talent is talent, regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation.