Women in Manufacturing: What Companies Can Do to Address Talent Crunch

By Nereida (Neddy) Perez, vice president of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion


You most likely have read or heard the stories from various news outlets about the number of women who have left Corporate America’s workforce as a result of COVID -19 and the Big Resignation wave.   Manufacturing is a critical industry that employees a significant percent of the labor population in the U.S.  This industry is already facing major challenges when it comes to workforce representation, worker retention and hiring because of a shortage in STEM Workers. The manufacturing skills gap in the U.S. could result in 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030, according to a new study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, the workforce development and education partner of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). The cost of those missing jobs potentially will total $1 trillion by 2030. The solution to this problem can be found when looking at women in the manufacturing industry. This industry is already facing major challenges when it comes to workforce representation, worker retention and hiring because of a shortage in STEM Workers. This article offers best practices as well as practical applications including Data Analysis how to tweak your Recruiting Strategy how to Develop Internal Talent and the value of reviewing your Policies & Process:

The Manufacturing Institute (MI) has been leading the way to show more women in manufacturing can potentially help reduce some of the expected talent shortages.  Their “Women Make America” (formerly “Step Ahead”) is designed to showcase the contributions of women in the manufacturing space from the frontlines of operations to executive leadership roles across various aspects of manufacturing.  While women account for 47% of the labor market, they only account for 30% in manufacturing roles.  One in four management positions are held by women in manufacturing jobs. The U.S.  Bureau reported in October 2022 that prior to the COVID 19 pandemic, women in manufacturing employment numbers were growing at a steady pace across all age groups but post the pandemic things shifted as many women exited the workforce. However, there are signs that more women are coming back to manufacturing roles.  (Source: https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2022/10/more-women-in-manufacturing-jobs.html)

However, manufacturing companies are still not attracting enough workers to close the talent shortages anticipated over the course of the next few years due to a smaller pool of potential talent and fewer people pursuing STEM careers.  Manufacturers looking to stay competitive for the next three to four generations of workers realize that they must invest aggressively in early talent and midcareer professionals in order to build up their succession pipelines.  These companies also are investing in diversity initiatives focused on women, ethnically diverse pipelines including people disability and military veteran communities.  Because women account for such a large part of the workforce (47%) the focus of this article is on what are companies doing to Attract, Develop and Retain women.

What is Working in Companies

There are several things from a diversity perspective that have been tried and tested that have led to proven results over the course of the last 15 to 20 years.  The main thing to remember is that these are not quick solutions they take time to achieve levels of success.  Normally a company that is focused on driving organizational change will see results within one to three years. The key to success is “Consistency of Application/Focus”.  Some of these investments/initiatives will vary in cost from $5K annually to $250K where possible we have provided an estimate of the investment level.  We have also called out the purpose of the program whether: Attraction, Development, Retention.  These are the three critical areas of any successful initiative.  There is one other area that we are calling out separately which is focused on “policies”.

Here is an overview of some initiatives that tend to yield positive results for companies when it comes to Attraction of Talent:

  • Gather the internal data. Where do you have the greatest talent needs by business function where women are underrepresented.  What does your turnover look like? What percentage of women are being promoted against men? Also, do not just lump all women together…if you really want to drive organizational change look at ethnicity representation of women (i.e. Asian, Black, Hispanic, Veterans, Disability). Several studies conducted by groups like Ascend and Catalyst, etc. have shown that while white women have advanced organizationally into leadership positions, ethnically diverse women have not benefited from corporate diversity efforts at the same rate when it comes to promotions and/or salaries in the past. The competition for talent in a market that is facing few people with STEM skills ethnically diverse talent maybe in a better situation to negotiate on salary and title for managerial roles.
  • Create a strategic plan focused on attracting women to your organization. This means creating an active marketing campaign with specific messaging about your company and why women should consider your organization as a place to grow their career.  Take advantage of national holidays to run specific messaging to promote women at your company (i.e., International Women’s Day or Mothers’ Day)
  • Identify industry specific professional associations that allow you to connect with candidates that are early, mid-career or seasoned professionals. In the manufacturing space there are several organizations including Women in Manufacturing and the Society of Women in Engineering.  But don’t overlook organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers and Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, these organizations allow you to connect with ethnically diverse communities as well.  Participation in these recruiting conferences can cost on average of $15K to $30K+ to secure a recruiting booth, job postings, and run targeted marketing campaigns.  If you have never been to these conferences and are wondering whether your company should invest it is a good idea to send a couple of your Talent Acquisition leaders and a representative from your Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Office to check out the event.  Make sure you set goals related to jobs to be posted and number of candidates you want to bring back to show an ROI.  It takes 1-3 years to see results, because attendees need to get to know your company.
  • Usage of Online recruiting sites (i.e., LinkedIn, Glassdoor, etc.) – Online sites are a great way to bolster your company’s brand and source for candidates. However, you need to make sure you a have a strategy mapped out to specifically focus on women that are early career candidates and midcareer or seasoned professionals.  Use these sites to highlight women in leadership roles at your company or working on unique projects or assignments globally as well as special leadership development programs, etc. Also, if you are planning to be at conferences and events focused on women, use these sites to help you promote those events and the booth or workshop location.   One of the things, some companies are doing is using these sites to promote live webinars that will be hosted by the company about a topic of interest to perspective candidates featuring employees or leaders of the company.  These online career & discovery workshops provide candidates a chance to learn from actual employees what it is like to work at your company.  Some companies provide opportunities for employees to participate in a Q&A about the department or business function featured.  These workshops can be recorded and then attached to other websites like LinkedIn or professional association organization’s websites that you support.  The recordings can even be sent to candidates who you are trying to recruit directly.

Messaging for each segment of the population is different. Companies that are the most successful in attracting female talent don’t just have one blanket message, rather they spend time understanding the types of candidates that they want to attract for the types of positions that they have.  Often this means gathering data from your internal employee resource groups or conducting an internal focus group with women in your company to understand what are the messages that would resonate with them.

Not all audiences are the same so how you recruit for a frontline supply chain position in the operations will be very different from attracting a marketing specialist.  You also have to consider age; are you looking for someone that is early talent (i.e., a recent college graduate) or a person with seven years of experience?   Niche ads that speak to the audience you are trying to attract especially is important in a competitive landscape to reinforce that you understand and value different perspectives.   For instance, the message for early talent candidates needs to focus on the opportunities to learn and advance quickly a message for midcareer professionals should focus on the benefits and the company’s investments in pay equity parity, etc.

The “why you should work here” has become very critical to all employees particular after COVID 19.  So, forget fluffy messages, rather you better mean what you say because today’s workers, especially Millennials, will walk in a heartbeat with or without a job lined up.  Gone are the days when someone will make promises about greener pastures if you join us, when in fact the workplace is more like an episode of “The Office” or “The Housewives of …”.

Your company may already have a large percentage of women in your organization and a great attraction plan, but what are you doing to develop women and make sure the women are growing into leadership roles?  If you want to Develop your Female Talent, then here are some best practices:

  • Mentoring: People often get confused by mentoring and sponsorship. Mentoring is focused on creating paired relationships that come together to co-learn a skill or about a topic that is important to one or both participants.  For example, you might pair someone that doesn’t know anything about Finance and pitching an investment project with a person in the Marketing/Sales organization.  They usually come together for 3, 6, 12 months.  The interactions maybe managed informally or formally.  Most companies find that their greatest levels of success come from having formal mentoring programs whereby mentees and mentors are paired organizationally.  Informal programs cost nothing organizationally except time and maybe a cup of coffee, but these relationships can’t be tracked, and results can’t be measured.   Formal programs can cost anywhere from $15K to $75K and you can track results by having mentoring pairs report back results attained.  What can you expect to see: employee retention goes up; individuals may apply to new jobs within the company; new business ideas could be launched?  All these things have a monetary value that can have a positive business impact.
  • Sponsorship: These programs require the partnering of senior leaders in the company (VPs, SVPs, EVPs) with individuals that maybe two to three levels below them (VPs, Senior Directors, Directors) that are being groomed as part of succession planning effort of the company.  When done well sponsorship programs result in the retention and advancement of diverse talent pipelines organizationally. The challenge for companies is that it is not enough to say the company has a sponsorship program and here is some training that you can complete. Rather the program requires some nurturing and care in the pairing of candidates to attain positive results.  Sponsorship programs on average can cost anywhere from $30K to $100K.  The cost can vary based on the kind of training, support, or coaching provided to the pairs is important to ensure program success.  Setting goals for the participants and having trackable business results ensures that this will not become a check the box exercise for the sponsors and sponsees. For instance, the sponsors should participate in active succession planning discussions where the sponsee is being discussed for a future assignment.
  • Internal Apprenticeship Programs: You have heard about hiring someone on as an apprentice to learn a new skill on the job.  Usually, apprentices are external hires but over the course of the last three years more and more companies are providing opportunities for employees to move into roles that provide them an opportunity to get exposure to business area that they are looking to explore for instance you may have a strong operations  manager  who has been working on a human resources degree and the person could be developed to be a human resources  business partner for your supply chain organization or for a labor relations manager role.  Average cost will be the equivalent of one year’s salary for the role and a replacement cost to back fill the position the individual is moving to.  The positive outcome is that you will increase retention of employees participating in the initiative.  you could track the positive financial impact that the person has in their role after the first year of participation in the program as well as the cost savings related to retention.
  • Dedicated Women’s Leadership Programs: Having worked in manufacturing and the utilities sector for almost 15 years, I have seen the power of running a well-organized Women’s Leadership Program that can not only positively improve retention but also generate business revenue and accelerate the advancement of women.  Now these programs can cost anywhere from $150K to $30K+ but if you build in strong business ROI metrics you can see significant results.  Critical components of the programs include: 1)Candidates selected should be have been with the company for at least 1-2 years 2) Be rated as key performer to high potential 3) be in supervisory or managerial roles that are being considered for advancement 4) have a cross section of the company’s business functions 5) have a cross section of ethnically diverse talent 6) have direct manager sign off  7) pair participants with a sponsor that is at least 3 levels above the participants’ current role and 8) build in some business leadership peer coaching or individual coaching for the participants 9) build in a business case or project that the participants can be part of  and last but not least  10) keep the class size between 25 to no more than 30 participants in order to enable the participants to network and form a personal bond with each other.

A lot of companies may feel that they can’t take this kind of initiative on because it requires a significant amount of nurturing.  In the case, of one manufacturing company a similar initiative yielded a million dollars of new revenue to the company’s bottom line within six months of the program’s launch. In the same company, there was high turnover (30+%) of their top female talent promoted into management roles. within However participants who completed the program showed zero turnover. When asked why they stayed with the company they sited that the program provided greater clarity about how to handle organizational headwinds as well as a network that could help them navigate the challenges.

Companies interested in these types of programs can create their own pro or partner with external leadership development companies that have leadership programs focused on women which can be customized.

Retention is critical in a market where there still significant talent shortages and more so in a manufacturing environment where there are not enough STEM workers to keep pace with the job openings predicted for the next three plus years.

Aside from investing in talent development programs mentioned above it will be critical to partner with the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Office in some initiative focused on retention.  A few efforts that companies have increased their focus on include:

  • Employee Resource Groups (ERGs): These groups provide an excellent forum for discussion and sharing ways to navigate internal corporate culture headwinds faced by employees.  In one food manufacture, the women’s network group members shared concerns about how the company did not have a clear process for laid out for promotions and how you apply for positions.   The head of diversity and the group brainstormed and created a panel discussion where the head of Talent Management and Talent Acquisition invited employees to speak about the internal application process for jobs.  A second workshop was held where tips on how to engage your immediate supervisor in a career development conversation was held. Some of the women from the network who were directors and vice presidents were invited to share how their career stories.    Employee groups provide a safe space for people to bring forward concerns but also, they are a great way to provide employees with tools and resources needed to navigate the company’s culture.
  • Succession Planning and Talent Review Discussions: Human Resources Business Partners (HRBP) and the Talent Management organization play a critical role in helping managers and senior leaders challenge perspectives when it comes to who is being named as a successor or is ready for advancement.  It is important that in these discussions’ decision makers be challenged when they make unconscious comments that are not related to actual job performance that can potentially derail someone’s career. For instance, if the manager of an employee has an opening for a director level position and three candidates are being discussed and the manager says, “I really like Susan, but she just had a baby, or her son has a disability.  She may not be able to keep up with the demands of the job as a director.” It is critical that the HRBP or the facilitator of the Talent Review challenge the statement because Susan’s abilities to perform the job of director have nothing to do with her abilities to be a mom. If she has the performance ratings and job skills to do the role then her personal life should not result in her being discounted for a position. Now if she is approached about the promotion and says, “I don’t feel I can take this role on at this time for personal reasons”, that is a different matter altogether, but she should not be discounted based on assumptions not related to performance.
  • Pay Equity: Many countries have policies in place promoting fair wage practices. Pay Equity with regards to women has been a visible challenge going all the way back to the 1800’s and it continues to be in many countries and industries.   We won’t go into all the historical reasons and recent research that shows disparity around pay is wrong.  Instead let’s focus on the fact that there is huge competition for talent particularly in manufacturing. If your company wants to be seen as a competitive employer and a good place to work than offering a competitive and fair wage based on job skills not gender is critical.

It used to be that Human Resources would tell employees your salary is confidential, and you can’t share it with anyone, and the Baby Boomers typically didn’t disclose their salaries. Then the GenXers started to disclose to their close friends their earnings, as a matter of fact the television show “Friends” could be credited with opening the Pandora Wage Box when the actors all walked off from contract negotiations until management agreed to pay similar wages to the group.  Today’s Millennials are hosting “Salary Reveal Parties” in bars, on Zoom, and at lunch.  They are the first to go back to Human Resources and their boss to ask, “Why is X getting paid more and doing less?” As a manager if you don’t have a good response you will have to be ready to negotiate or watch them clean out their desk.

The other thing to keep in mind as an employer is that regardless of where your company is based you are not just competing with local companies anymore.  You are competing with companies that are global and offering employees the opportunity to work virtually to do the same job. Now granted frontline roles in operations and supply chain require people to be physically located onsite. If this is the situation then you want to look at what other companies in your area are doing from a pay structure perspective so you can remain competitive.

In an era when talent is the critical fuel that can help your company grow, having not only a strong Employee Value Proposition (EVP) but also Corporate Policies that support your EVP and corporate culture are essential.  Also, you may have noticed that many companies change up their EVP every three to five years by tweaking a few words or working a sentence, etc. It used to be that EVPs, laid dormant in many companies’ websites and no one ever challenged it…this is not the case anymore. If it is published and you are not living up to it, it will be challenged. The same is true about your Corporate Policies. These must be published for all to see whether online or in print and they must be consistently applied.  As you may have seen, many companies no longer use the term Maternal Leave but rather the accepted term is “Paternal Leave” which not only covers adoptions but also covers men and members of the LGBTQA communities.

One very hot topic today is a company’s position on “Work from Home”, “Virtual Workplace” or “Partial Work from Home” policies.  One company that was looking to hire talent during the COVID19 told a perspective candidate that they would be fine to “Work from Home” but that they would need to pay for their own travel expenses when traveling to the Corporate Headquarters.  The perspective candidate thought that was an odd request and did a quick Google search on the Department of Labors’ website to conclude that what the company was doing was a violation of fair wage practices that would result in disparate treatment.  They let the perspective employer know that they would not be accepting the position.

When it comes to women and ethnically diverse talent, fair practices and policies are critical. So, a company’s practices and positions on pay equity, medical accessibility, Roe vs. Wade, human rights, workplace harassment, sexual discrimination, zero tolerance follow through, access to education and development programs, etc. make a difference.

Companies that allow for unprofessional business behaviors or have policies and practices that do not support the full development and success of its employees will result in not only a bad corporate reputation…they will find that talent female talent will not stay because they cannot successfully thrive.  Those organizations will not have the benefit of the skills and talents of women and will essentially find themselves in a weaker position to compete for talent at a time that the manufacturing industry is struggling to find STEM Workers.

About the author:  Nereida (Neddy) Perez is the Global Vice President of Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) at McCormick & Company a global leader in consumer products focused on flavors and spice production.  Neddy has more than 27 years-experience in Human Resources, Employee Relations, Diversity Management, Public Affairs & Corporate Relations. She has worked in various industries on a global level and received many accolades ranging publications to professional industry associations and government agencies.   She is chair of Diversity MBA Magazine’s Advisory Board.

Quick Hits Guide to Increasing Women in Manufacturing

  • Data Analysis: Assess current pipeline needs and distribution of where your female pipeline is thriving. Look at talent gaps by level and business function. Get industry data to better understand how you stack up locally, regionally and nationally.
  • Tweak your Recruiting Strategy: 1) Create targeted strategic messages aligned to your talent needs focusing on women; 2) Identify external partnerships focused on women; 3) Tweak your online presence on LinkedIn, Glassdoor etc. 4) Check your job posting and job descriptions to make sure you are using gender neutral or gender friendly language.
  • Develop Internal Talent: Assess and determine whether you need to create programs focused on developing your female pipeline through mentoring, sponsorship or a dedicated leadership program. Leverage your employee resource groups to support your retention and development opportunities.  Prepare and educate your managers and leaders on how they expected to support your diversity and talent needs.
  • Check your Policies & Process: Make sure your policies and processes align to current market expectations on pay equity, work environment conditions. Test your employee value proposition to make sure there is congruency between what you say and how people see the company practicing the behaviors.