A Manufacturing Recovery, But Not for Women

Why are women losing jobs in a growing, high-paying industry?

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Politicians of both parties cheer recent boosts to manufacturing employment, but both sexes haven't reaped the benefits. A new report shows that while the industry gained 530,000 jobs from February 2010 to April 2013, women lost 28,000 manufacturing jobs during that same time.

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The study, released May 14 by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., shows not only that the recent manufacturing comeback has largely left women behind, but that women's representation in the industry has fallen steadily for two decades. At their peak, women made up 32 percent of all manufacturing employees in 1990, a share that is now at 27 percent, the lowest rate since 1971.

At a Wednesday hearing on the topic, Klobuchar highlighted that these jobs are there for the taking but that women are missing out on those opportunities.

"Women are underrepresented in the manufacturing workforce. They're losing ground," she said.

But why are women losing ground in a growing industry? It's not because women have been working less altogether. While women's participation in manufacturing has declined from its 1990 peak, women's share of the working population has also grown slightly, from 45 percent in 1990 to nearly 47 percent today, according to the Labor Department.

One problem may be what the report calls the "long-standing stigma" that working in manufacturing means heavy physical labor. Industry leaders say that perceptions may not align with the realities of what it means to work in manufacturing today.

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"Historically we've been viewed as the three Ds: dark, dirty, and dangerous," said Jennifer McNelly, president of the Manufacturing Institute, the nonprofit arm of the National Association of Manufacturers, at Wednesday's hearing. However, the manufacturers represented at the hearing described new jobs in manufacturing more in terms of "critical thinking" than grunt work.

Even within the industry, women tend to gravitate to desk work. According to Klobuchar's study, the only area of the industry where women make up a majority of workers is in office and administrative support, where women make up 62.2 percent of workers.

Women also may be losing out because they are not getting the specific training needed for today's manufacturing jobs. Many of these skills are in the science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM fields – areas that are dominated by men in higher education. As Klobuchar's report notes, women earn a majority of bachelor's degrees but less than half of math and science degrees, along with less than 20 percent of engineering and computer science degrees.

Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, also pointed out at Wednesday's hearing that even within STEM, women tend to gravitate toward biology and chemistry, not the technical fields that are more applicable to jobs in advanced manufacturing.

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Getting women interested in manufacturing jobs would increase diversity and parity within the industry, but it would also be a financial boon for many companies. The manufacturing industry is facing a shortage of skilled workers, such as machinists and electrical technicians. A broader pool of qualified applicants (of either sex) could mean filling vacant jobs and boosting American manufacturing firms.

Darlene Miller, president and CEO of precision manufacturing company Permac, told committee members on Wednesday that positions at her company are remaining open for months at a time. Many firms industry-wide have long reported similar problems.

In addition to boosting firms, working in manufacturing could benefit women's bottom lines. A 2012 analysis from the Commerce Department found that hourly compensation for manufacturing workers is 17 percent higher than for workers in other fields.