Women In Manufacturing — Q&A With Sheila LaMothe

We sat down with Sheila LaMothe, a board member of WiM, to learn more about the organization's initiatives. Read on to find out how WiM is working towards building a stronger community for women in the manufacturing industry.

With more than 500 members, Women in Manufacturing (WiM) is dedicated to closing this gap by supporting, promoting and inspiring women who pursue or chose a career in the manufacturing industry.

"More women entering manufacturing and succeeding is good for women and for the industry.

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SL: I am currently serving as Chairperson of the Board of Directors for Women in Manufacturing (WiM) and the recently launched Women in Manufacturing Education Foundation (WiMEF).
What’s your role in Women in Manufacturing?

Why and when did you join Women in Manufacturing? 

SL: In my day job, I am the Associate Director of Marketing and Public Relations for TRUMPF Inc. I was first introduced to WiM in 2012 when TRUMPF decided to take part in a special magazine section supporting women in manufacturing. I quickly became passionate about WiM’s mission and wanted to help this exciting organization grow. I became a WiM member and was thrilled when TRUMPF came on board as one of WiM’s first corporate members. I ramped up my commitment to WiM by serving on the host committee for WiM’s annual SUMMIT event, a role that eventually lead to leadership opportunities first as Vice Chair and now Chairperson.

What do you like most about being involved in the organization?

SL: There is so much I like about being involved with WiM. WiM’s mission to support, promote and inspire women in manufacturing really speaks to me. Getting involved in the early stages of WiM’s existence has afforded me the opportunity to help grow and shape the organization which is challenging, exciting and rewarding. WiM also provides great opportunity for networking and professional development. I’ve met inspiring women who give me confidence to continue to push forward in my career, take risks, and be the most that I can be. The whole experience has been invigorating.

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What are some of the main challenges facing women in manufacturing today?

SL: The manufacturing sector has many high-tech and high-paying career opportunities but, too often, women do not know that manufacturing could be a good fit for them. Of course, this problem is not unique to women. It’s a challenge to get the word out to a variety of audiences who could fill the pipeline of badly needed skilled workers.

One issue is that manufacturing is not well promoted in our school system. The industry is often overlooked as a viable career path which is unfortunate for manufacturing – and for students! A graduate from a technical high school with a welding degree can make as much as $60,000 to start. We have to spread that message.

A second issue is that negative stereotypes linger around the industry. Today’s manufacturing is all about technology, but the image of a dark, dirty and dangerous factory floor is a difficult one to dispel.

How is Women in Manufacturing positioned to solve those challenges?

SL: WiM collaborates with our members and other organizations to promote the opportunities manufacturing offers to women. Since our beginning, WiM has been committed to providing training and development programs to help women better position themselves for opportunities in the manufacturing sector. Events such as WiM’s annual SUMMIT draw national participation and attention and feature factory tours, keynote speakers and panel discussions promoting manufacturing to women. 

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What are some of the organization’s main initiatives in 2017?

SL: Overall, developmental and educational programs continue to be at the forefront of our efforts. In the fall of 2016, WiM established the WiMEF, the 501(c)(3) arm of WiM which will provide funding for a variety of initiatives for women in manufacturing. In my experience with WiM, there are women who want to improve themselves and further their careers, but they do not have access to programs to help accomplish their goals. This new foundation is designed to address that need. WiMEF is dedicated to helping women climb the ladder of manufacturing careers. We are driving a campaign to secure both endowment and operating funds to get this important work off the ground.

2017 will also bring the second Leadership Lab for Women in Manufacturing. Hosted in conjunction with Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management, the Leadership Lab provides executive training for women managers and senior leaders in manufacturing. In addition, 2017 will see the launch of our new Management Development Program, a series of in-person and webinar trainings addressing a variety of key topics to prepare women in manufacturing for management and supervisory roles.

Finally, the WiM SUMMIT, our annual conference, is the highlight event of each calendar year, drawing participants from all over the U.S. to participate in three days of facility tours, development tracks, keynote presentations, interactive presentations and networking. As a Connecticut resident, I am excited that SUMMIT 2017 will be held in Hartford from September 13-15.

How have you seen the role and status of women in manufacturing evolve in recent years? Is the situation getting better or worse? 

SL: In my experience, manufacturing is a better place for women each day. There are women employed at every level of the company I work for – from the shop floor to senior management. Many companies have specific initiatives to develop the women currently in their employ as well as to attract additional women. These initiatives are prevalent and can only help increase the numbers and contributions of women in manufacturing.

Every month, we look at the percentage of the manufacturing workforce made up by women. Unfortunately, the percentage has remained pretty constant over the last decade. Are there other measures or metrics that are important to look at as well?

SL: While the numbers have remained fairly constant, even incremental change matters. Manufacturing has battled back from the Great Recession and is an engine that is powering economic growth today. According to the Current Population Survey -- the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly survey that provides information on employment and unemployment in the US -- in 2016, there were about 4.5 million women employed in manufacturing in the United States, around 29% of the manufacturing workforce. (Industry Week and others also have that stat.) Certainly there is much progress to make, but the numbers are headed in the right direction. 

CO: Are the gender gap and the skills gap in manufacturing connected? Is there an approach that will solve both?

SL: Approximately 600,000 manufacturing jobs will go unfilled this year because companies can’t find the skilled workers needed – men or women. And, because of an aging manufacturing workforce in the U.S., some estimate there will be two million manufacturing jobs open in the next decade. One way to solve this problem is to attract more women in manufacturing.

Women make up 47% of the workforce, but we comprise only 29% of the manufacturing workforce. It should not be this way. We aren’t going to solve the skills gap if we don’t address the gender gap, too.

A recent WiM survey found that more than 80% of women who work in manufacturing find their work rewarding. We need to get the word out and recruit more women into these high-tech, high-paying jobs. More women entering manufacturing and succeeding is good for women and for the industry. 

"We aren’t going to solve the skills gap if we don’t address the gender gap, too.

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CO: Looking ahead, what are some of your predictions for the marketplace this year?  

SL: Manufacturing is strong and getting stronger. Outlook for manufacturing in 2017 is rosier than in recent years with most experts predicting that growth will continue at a gradual, steady pace. I hope that 2017 will also bring an uptick in hiring in manufacturing. There are open jobs waiting to be filled. I’m hoping for a renewed focus on skills training and a commitment to boosting awareness of and access to opportunity in our industry.

CO: How can companies become advocates for women in the industry?

SL: Become a corporate member of WiM and take advantage of what we have to offer at the national level. Encourage your women employees to participate in in-person and online educational opportunities. And, keep in mind that there are also local WiM chapters in a number of states that offer additional local programming. Corporate membership does more than give women employees access to great tools; it also demonstrates a commitment to women in the industry. When companies support and promote women, they provide opportunities to cultivate top talent now and in the future.

CO: What is some of the best advice you could give to other women working in manufacturing? 

SL: Manufacturing offers so many opportunities, it is a great place to start and develop a career. Set goals for yourself and strive for them, no matter how lofty they may seem. Don’t sell yourself short and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. You are better and stronger than you think you are. You will make mistakes. Learn from them and move on. Surround yourself with your supporters (professional and personal) and distance yourself from negative influences. We all have moments of insecurity and at all stages of our careers. Your supporters will help reassure you during these times and keep you on the path towards your goals.

CO: Are there any other thoughts you would like to share that you feel are important?

SL: Absolutely – Whenever I think about the need to bring more women into manufacturing, I’m reminded of that old adage, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”  Role models are critically important to demonstrate the wide range of career opportunities available in manufacturing. I encourage people to check out the WiM blog, which features our Hear Her Story series. This series showcases women of all ages, job titles, and locations sharing their own manufacturing industry career stories. Read their insights and learn from their experiences – it’s a wealth of knowledge.

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