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CPBJ Extra Blog

Can women save manufacturing?

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Last week, I wrote about my dad and his trucking adventures. This week, let's give my mother equal time.

The blog reminds me weekly of just how many personal experiences with manufacturing and trucking I've had throughout my life — another reason this reporting beat feels like a great fit.

My mom worked in manufacturing for more than 30 years. She retired in 2012 from a Penguin Putnam book warehouse in Kirkwood, N.Y. This warehouse was in the news recently after Penguin announced it will close the facility and merge production with its Pittston plant at the end of 2014.

My mom worked second shift filling book orders. As the years went on, she acquired plenty of skills as the operation became more computerized.

When she retired, the company didn't want her to go. She hedged on her actual retirement date for a couple of years, with her bosses always relieved when it was further delayed.

When boredom set in several months into retirement, Mom returned to Penguin inquiring about part-time work. While company policy didn't permit part-time workers, she was offered her old job back on the spot.

Not surprising. As I've written about before in this space, manufacturers have a big need for skilled laborers. More than 80 percent of manufacturers still cannot find the workers they need, according to the 2011 Skills Gap Report published by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute.

And it's not just the United States. The latest UK Commission for Employment and Skills report revealed the sharpest rises in skills shortages fell into the manufacturing, plumbing and electrical engineering sectors.

There is some thought that the next generation of workers like my mom can fill that doughnut hole. That is, if more women go into manufacturing.

In a recent opinion piece for the U.S. News and World Report, Mary Bell, vice president of the Building Construction Products Division at Caterpillar Inc., said the skills gap is "due to the under-representation of women in the industry."

Women make up 50 percent of the U.S. workforce, but only about 25 percent of the manufacturing workforce.

To attract more women to factories, an image makeover is needed, Bell said. The factories of yesteryear were similar to how they're portrayed in Hollywood movies: filthy places with low wages and often unsafe conditions.

I know, because I worked in them. That was before federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards were strengthened.

Today, the Central Pennsylvania warehouses and distribution centers I have visited are clean and safe, and many of the jobs pay well.

Many women surveyed say that manufacturing is at least somewhat appealing.

More than 75 percent of women surveyed for the Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute report agreed that a manufacturing career is interesting and rewarding, emphasizing compensation and opportunities for challenging assignments as the top reasons to stay in the industry.

Do you think local manufacturers can attract more women? If not, what are the drawbacks to this career?

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