Women: The Next Face of Manufacturing

July 12, 2012

Recently, I shared some concerns surrounding the skills gap that exists in the manufacturing industry today. I have been spreading the message for many years that our industry needs to do a better job at encouraging the development of a non-traditional, more diverse workforce in order to help solve the growing skills gap that affects manufacturing today in addition to preparing the next generation to come. A big part of the next generation includes our girls and young women who have often been forgotten when it comes to recruiting efforts in fields requiring a strong skill set in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). My goal is to change the face of the next generation of manufacturing to include an important talent pool that is often left behind. 

This is a startling fact, but in the last 20 years, the number of engineers who are women have risen by only about 3%, making up less than 20% of all engineers. In other words, we are leaving half of the nation’s intellectual capital on the table.

As a woman engineer and a third generation manufacturer, I invest much of my personal time in encouraging and participating in programs which engage young girls to follow in my footsteps.  As a nation, we need to do so much more to encourage our young women and girls to engage in STEM-related careers. Our young women may not know yet what they want to be … many of them have never considered a career in engineering or manufacturing because “that’s a man’s job.”

My local school district, Illinois School District U-46, is the second largest public school district in Illinois with 40,784 students. U-46 offers a wide array of STEM education programs at the high school level, including honors and AP math and science courses, as well as pre-engineering programs, such as computer science and electronics. Unfortunately, throughout these courses there was an under-representation of girls.

Last year, I worked in collaboration with the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity Education Foundation (NAPE-EF) and Illinois School District U-46 to secure funding for an initiative to provide students the education, job training and experience to further their learning in STEM. Through a grant provided by the Motorola Solutions Foundation’s Innovation Generation program, they created a “STEM Equity Academy” program through the local school district.  It engaged 40 administrators, counselors, and faculty from five area high schools in intensive professional development to implement research-based practices.  The result was increased access, success, and post-secondary transition of girls and other underrepresented groups into STEM opportunities. Beyond funding, the program received ongoing support from volunteers in the business community who, like me, served as mentors, tutors, and experts in STEM careers to inspire the next generation of inventors and inspired thinkers. The results from the program’s initiatives have been astounding.  Several participating schools have experienced double-digit percentages enrollment increases in STEM-based courses heading into the 2012-2013 school year.

At the end of the day, we need to see more public-private partnerships like this being developed to establish learning opportunities in STEM education. There are great program initiatives available to help further STEM education for our young girls.  We need to focus our energy, resources, and training to create a pipeline of workers, leaders, and entrepreneurs for the next generation.

Continuing to engage in grant partnerships like we are doing in my area is a great model for tapping into resources and opportunities at the local level to plant seeds that will continue to grow for years to come.  I believe that we can draw new students and new workers to close the skills gap.  Most importantly, we can do it now. This is a win-win scenario for everyone.


About Sandra Westlund-Deenihan/Quality Float Works, Inc.:  Sandra Westlund-Deenihan serves as President and Design Engineer of Quality Float Works, Inc., the premier metal float and assembly manufacturer in the county located in suburban Chicago, IL.  Products are used to level liquid controls in the gas, oil, plumbing and agriculture industries. In 2011, Sandra was appointed to Chair the Illinois State Board of Education’s Gender Equity Advisory Committee – a committee with the purpose to advise and consult with the Illinois State Board of Education to ensure all students have equal educational opportunities to pursue high-wage, high-skill occupations leading to economic self-sufficiency.