Business Topics

Women at Work

Expanding the Base in Manufacturing

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MCN Editor Dan Markham
March was Women’s History Month in the United States. But for the five women gathered to talk about manufacturing at the FMA’s Annual Meeting last month in Miami, their gazes were fixed more on the future than the past. 

The women assembled for the penultimate panel included two individuals born into manufacturing, though one took a circuitous route back, one long-time and another fresh-faced employee from the same company and a service center general manager who jumped headfirst into metals distribution right out of college. Their varied paths into the metals sector represent how previously underrepresented populations can find their way into the industrial economy and help ease some of the labor shortages that have lingered over the sector. 

Take Lauren Sulla. Upon her graduation from college, the Detroit native returned to her hometown, looking to put her accounting degree to work but not interested in becoming a CPA. She interviewed at a host of operations, but it was a specific visit to Olympic Steel’s Detroit operation that won her over. Rather than limit her experience there to the relative quiet of the back office, her recruiter took her on a plant tour.

“A lot of times you don’t get to see the other side of the door in a role like that, because it’s not important to the position; you just need to deal with the transactions and push the paper,” she recalled. “But they took me out there and I’m seeing the facility, where we do slitting and blanking and cut-to-length. You see all the moving parts, literally and figuratively, that make the business run, and it just inspired me.”

She took that position. And 14 years later, she’s serving as the general manager for the operation, now owned by Venture Steel. 

“I’d been offered other jobs, but I really wanted to work there,” she said. “I really loved the tangible product, and how it’s about problem solving and finding ways to do things better each day.”

Co-panelist Lisa Lindblom had a much different route. She had been working in printing when a recruiter contacted her to consider a role at Jones Metal, a custom metal fabricator in Mankato, Minn. “If that recruiter hadn’t reached out to me, I wouldn’t have thought I’d have been qualified for the position,” said Lindblom, director of sales and marketing. 

That’s a chronic problem for women, said panelist Val Bentdahl, who works in human resources at Jones Metal. Studies show the average man only needs to be 40 percent qualified for a job to apply, while the average woman only does so if she meets 80 percent of the qualifications. That’s an attitude that has to change, both from the perspective of the woman and the people looking to fill vacancies. “If you’re really looking to get women into your industry, encourage them. If you know they’re capable, the training will be there, the additional support will be there,” she said. 

But, obviously, it also requires a new mindset from women. 

“The biggest challenge is to get women to think beyond the stereotype and think differently. It’s one thing to advertise for positions and have women in videos, but it’s a shift that women need to feel they belong there. And I’m not sure what that looks like other than gals like us up on this panel spreading the word,” said Vanessa Hein, the CEO of Brenco Industries, Delta, British Columbia. 

And, really, what company isn’t looking to expand its employee pool given the ongoing personnel crunch? Tapping these underrepresented populations is crucial, whether that’s someone looking for a first job or a talented individual from an entirely different industry. 

Though she grew up in a manufacturing family, moderator  Lisa Wertzbaugher began her professional career in medical device with corporate giant Johnson and Johnson. But she ultimately left the corporate world to return to manufacturing with the family business with her husband, a welder. 

The return was an eye-opening experience. “When I got to the family business, it was totally different. It wasn’t loud. It was all about programming and technology. I was very surprised, and I liked it,” Wertzbaugher said. 

What initially appealed to her, a new mother, was the flexibility the return offered. But she was also lured by the opportunities. 

“I haven’t been to one of these conferences yet where we haven’t talked about the labor shortage. We don’t have enough resources. When I look at that, I know there are opportunities here to enhance your career more quickly than maybe some other industries where there’s a lot of competition,” she said, noting that when she left her former position, there would be 100 people lined up to fill it. 

Bentdahl has a similar story. She began her career outside manufacturing, but shifted gears and went to work for Jones Metal. “I started at the corporate level, and there wasn’t a lot of room for growth.”

That wasn’t the case for her, particularly in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, when the company underwent downsizing. She found herself handling a variety of important tasks, including purchasing, sales and scheduling. “You got to see the full dynamic of what happens in fabrication and manufacturing,” Bentdahl said. 

The conditions are changing, albeit slowly. When Sulla started, the company had no women on the production floor at her facility. Today, they have four. One woman previously served as floor supervisor. 

Just as important, these changes went off rather smoothly. “All the men really embraced it. I think people are more ready to embrace the change than we give them credit for. It’s just a matter of jumping over that line and putting them out there,” she said. 

Asked what they hoped to get out of their careers in manufacturing, the panelists gave a variety of answers, including the desire to be part of building something that lasts, to expand opportunities for women and to be challenged in their professional lives. But Wertzbaugher, who also runs a consulting firm, reminded them of something they should never overlook. 

“I’m a 20-year salesperson so I’ll go ahead and say this, ‘I work for money.’ That’s the primary reason we go to work, and here you’ll have the opportunity to grow your comp faster than maybe in some other industries,” she said.