Sitting on the brink of total technological transformation, the manufacturing industry is set to triple by 2025. Leaps being made in automation, robotics and IoT technologies have triggered an evolutionary journey towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution – nevertheless, a major barrier still stands in the way for companies seeking to capitalise on the opportunity technology presents.

Call it a talent deficit, a brain-drain or a skills shortage, the manufacturing industry is in dire need of people to take it forward. Yet, as we have seen with the tech sector in recent years, the industry has an opportunity to tap into a pool of talent that it has historically left behind. Whether it’s at entry or leadership level, manufacturing must increase the appeal of the sector to the 50 per cent of the population who could prove to be the solution to the persistent skills problem – women.

While certain firms have taken steps to rebalance the scales in the sector, manufacturing on the whole is still a male-dominated industry. Of course, we know addressing the skills gap isn’t as easy as simply recruiting more women – in order for this to even be an option, firms must identify the root cause of industry’s diversity problem, and it all starts with culture. Rather than starting backwards with messaging and social media campaigns, leaders must work to create a culture where unique strengths are celebrated; they must go beyond policy-setting to find new and creative ways of encouraging women towards a career in modern manufacturing.

Understanding and addressing the needs of all rather than one demographic is a logical place to begin. In a recent survey of well-experienced women in manufacturing and their opinions on the diversity of the profession, seven out of 10 respondents said they’d stay in manufacturing if they were to start their careers today.

Only three out of 10 said they’d take a different career path. Yet, for those who said they would leave, the main reasons cited were poor working relationships, lack of opportunities and low compensation. When asked about the key cultural offerings that manufacturing employers should use to recruit and retain female talent, most respondents listed flexible working practices as well as formal and informal mentorship programs.

Indeed, providing these opportunities for employees can certainly send a message to the talent pool that all candidates are welcome and able to advance their careers in this sector. Devising and implementing diverse leadership development strategies that nurture potential from entry-level, such as mentor and sponsorship, can help firms to slowly build up a talent pipeline to address the leadership challenges of tomorrow; aligning recent female graduates with more senior women will aid in levelling the playing field in the long-term.

Perception of manufacturing continues to be outdated among women, but efforts to create working environments in which all employees feel supported by introducing more flexibility and placing more focus on work-life balance will undoubtedly aid in boosting diversity in the sector.

Of course, it’s a catch-22 situation: culture cannot change in manufacturing if there are no women in the room to influence a shift from the top. Without mentors, the promise of role models is empty; without female leaders, companies will struggle to attract young women into the industry at a time where their contribution is critical. In order to build a culture that attracts the best and brightest, manufacturing firms must look at their senior leadership teams to ensure the right mix of talent exists at the top.

This demands an overhaul of recruitment and promotion practices; it requires existing leaders to look at the processes they currently have in place and determine what is preventing talented women from climbing up the career ladder in their organisations.

Manufacturing is in dire need of a rebrand, but it must start from within. Already, some manufacturers and educators have begun collaborating to create programs that provide more exposure to the reality of modern manufacturing. However, if they are to tap into the potential of new technology, close the skills gap and seize the competitive edge in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, manufacturing employers must do more to engineer cultural change within their organisations. After all, the best innovations are born from diversity.

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