JG logo

Rosie the Riveter, Part II

Strategy needed to keep women in manufacturing

Rachel Bennett Steury

If there were any doubts about the advancements of women in the United States, one need only look to the 113th Congress to be convinced.

Until now, there have never been 20 female senators in office at one time. Of the 2,000 senators throughout our nation’s history, only 44 have been women. There are also a record number of women in the House, with 77 women sworn in this year.

For Indiana the same is true. Jackie Walorski and Susan Brooks are making history, joining the Indiana delegation this term.

The Center for Women and Politics explains there are only four states yet to elect a woman into their delegation, something the women in Mississippi, Delaware, Iowa and Vermont are sure to soon remedy.

Clearly, women in politics are making it, but those steady advancements have been slow to translate into advancements for women who really do make it – women in manufacturing. Women in our steel mills, machine shops and on our assembly lines. Women who manipulate coils of copper, adjust tolerances and controls, hoist ladles of liquid, and spin the fibers of our clothes. Women who make it are women who make America great. But in an industry that employs 12 million people, having just 27 percent of those jobs held by women begs the question: Will Rosie the Riveter eventually punch her last time card?

Certainly the past decade has seen a decline in manufacturing employment for everyone, but women bore the brunt of job loss in three of the four highest-paying manufacturing sectors. According to a recent report by the National Women’s Law Center, women’s employment in chemicals, petroleum and coal products, and computer and electronics products manufacturing, decreased while men’s employment increased. Where did Rosie go?

Our nation’s lack of a clear, comprehensive plan to drive innovation, education and job growth is partly to blame for the decline in manufacturing. While most industrialized nations have their own strategies already in place and are seeing the benefits from them, it appears we have planned to fail by failing to plan.

A national manufacturing strategy should encourage collaboration between the government and manufacturers while addressing our unbalanced trade relationship with other countries. Smart improvements to our infrastructure using American-made materials will strengthen our transportation and energy systems, and in turn our manufacturing capabilities.

We must also keep our trade laws strong and ensure they are enforced. Lowering our trade deficit will help lower the budget deficit by increasing employment and strengthening the tax base. When more people are working, inventing and making things here at home, we are making great gains to prosperity for our communities and our tax base and building our nation.

The lack of estrogen on the shop floor has long-term repercussions for manufacturers across the country.

At a time when capable manufacturing workers are in high demand, very few stakeholders are strategically courting the female population to fill the void. Our educational institutions have also missed this key demographic. Since only 15 percent of the students enrolled in manufacturing-degree programs are women, the likelihood of making it at the same pace as men is far from reality. We should make a greater investment in our vocational and technical skills programs and alleviate the shortages of qualified workers in the manufacturing sector by recruiting a new generation of Rosie the Riveters.

Those of us with manufacturing experience should promote the industry to our sisters and our daughters and dispel the outdated notion that manufacturing jobs are difficult, dirty and best left for men. Today, jobs in manufacturing are often high-tech and offer better pay and benefits than many other sectors. Looking beyond typical career paths for women can lead some to agree that “sometimes the best man for the job isn’t.”

A manufacturing strategy will allow our nation to thrive, our industry to grow and our women to have more opportunities to lead in innovation. America’s manufacturing women are counting on women in Congress to make it a priority to keep making it in America.

Rachel Bennett Steury lives in Auburn and is the Midwest field coordinator for the Alliance for American Manufacturing. She wrote this for Indiana newspapers.

© Copyright 2014 The Journal Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.