Manufacturing: attracting and retaining women to close the skills gap

02 Nov 2016

Manufacturing: attracting and retaining women to close the skills gap

Not too many women say that a career in manufacturing is attractive. As a result, women are few and far between in the manufacturing industry worldwide. But the advent of digital manufacturing could well change this. It presents the perfect opportunity for industry leaders to increase gender diversity and, in the process, the serious skills shortage in the sector can be addressed.

In the US for example, women represent only around 25% of the manufacturing workforce, and the figures for South Africa aren’t much different. Part of the problem is a legacy issue – the industry has always been perceived as male-dominated and focused on physical labour, with the result that women have not had the opportunity to come through the ranks into leadership positions within this sector.

Worldwide, the manufacturing sector has over the past few years witnessed a dramatic shift from traditional manufacturing practices (which were labour intensive and required low technology) to models embracing the latest technological – especially digital – advances.

The digital revolution in manufacturing requires skill sets which are in short supply in the industry. Attracting and retaining more women into the sector presents an ideal opportunity to address this shortage. The industry requires leadership which will take advantage of the opportunities the new digital space offers.

According to Statistics South Africa, South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 3.3% quarter-on-quarter in the second quarter of 2016, after contracting by 1.2% in the previous quarter, this as announced in early September. The secondary sector grew by 5.3% with manufacturing up 8.15%, the manufacturing, mining and quarrying made the biggest contribution to GDP growth. 

With the manufacturing sector being such an important contributor to our economy, it is vital that the sector starts to become more inclusive by attracting senior talent beyond the current male dominated pool of resources.

A recent Accenture report titled ‘The new rules of engagement on the factory floor’, reports that 70% of manufacturing executives interviewed cite a lack of skilled workers as their biggest concern with the digitally connected industrial workforce. It continues that a workforce that is not ready for the change and not equipped with adequate qualifications and skills to support connected machines could wipe out potential efficiency gains.

The manufacturing sector could do more to market itself as a desirable industry in which women can forge their careers.

Some opportunities the sector could consider:

  • Address the unconscious gender bias of the current male leadership. Executives need to create an inclusive business culture.
  • Acknowledge the positive benefits of gender diversity in leadership teams.
  • Determine what factors would retain women in the industry and take steps to address these. Examples include flexible working hours, adequate maternity leave, and work-life balance.
  • Rotate assignments so as to expose women to different sectors of manufacturing, with the aim of fast-tracking them to leadership positions. Equal access to mentorship for women is also crucial.

Note: The Accenture report sampled 512 respondents across all major industrial countries in North America, Western Europe and Asia. The sample included factory directors, engineering and R&D heads, operations and HR managers, and C-suite executives.