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Lasers and Robots and Women, Oh My!

By Sarah A. Webster
Editor in Chief  


SarahAWebsterI had the great pleasure of attending the Women in Manufacturing reception at FABTECH 2013 in Chicago this week. 

The reception was a packed, standing-room-only celebration of women working across the spectrum in metalworking, from students to welders and machinists to engineers, business leaders and industry advocates. 

The lack of women in manufacturing has been identified as a key reason why there’s a shortage of skilled workers in manufacturing. 

Women make up 47% of the total US labor force and a majority of new college graduates, but only 25% of the manufacturing work force. Meanwhile, there are an estimated 600,000 job vacancies in manufacturing, despite high levels of national unemployment. 

One of the refrains that I kept hearing at the reception was this: If only other women would give manufacturing a chance, they’d learn that it was a great industry in which to build a career. Many reasons were cited: Manufacturing careers tend to pay better than other industries, for one, but they're also challenging, creative and high-tech. 

One of the most overlooked reasons to explore a career in manufacturing is this, however: You can really, truly make a difference.  

A lot of women who excel in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) are drawn to careers in medicine or scientific research because these are areas where they think they can make a difference. But they shouldn't overlook the value that manufacturing brings to our daily lives. 

How do you think, after all, those high-tech hip implants that allow your grandmother to walk again were made? Or those giant wind turbines that are tapping into a clean, renewable energy sources? Or the smartphones that have so profoundly changed the world?  

After the engineers design it, the manufacturers must make it. Manufacturers are using higher tech equipment than ever before, too. Aside from 3D printers, there are lasers and robots and a whole host of other advanced manufacturing machines. 

Women, of course, are just as capable of programming and operating those machines as men are, and they are just as capable at running the factory. But their STEM abilities have to be recognized and cultivated, and they have to be shown that the manufacturing industry is inviting and desirable.  

This week, a delightful video went viral that indirectly criticizes the toy industry for not giving girls the kind of high-tech toys that help to develop the spatial intelligence necessary for these kind of STEM fields. In it, the girls use all their girly toys, such as pink teapots, feather boahs and roller skates to build a complex Rube Goldberg machine out of them. In the narrative, we are to believe they actually made this creative fun machine. 

This is precisely the kind of work, and thinking, that goes into manufacturing every day. 

The women who already work in manufacturing are making a concerted effort to reach out a hand or two to invite another generation of women, hopefully an even bigger one, into the modern factory. 

For now, manufacturing remains the road less traveled, but it can still make all the difference. 

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