Industry 4.0 brings barriers and opportunities for women in manufacturing

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Jhe transition to Industry 4.0 depends on male-dominated fields like IT and engineering, which can have a disproportionate effect on women looking to enter this field.

However, the industry-wide shift towards more automation, big data and robotics could ultimately expand opportunities for women who have not had access to more traditional manufacturing roles, according to executives and managers. industry observers.

The World Economic Forum’s 2016 report on Women and Work in the Fourth Industrial Revolution predicted that as Industry 4.0 gains momentum, men will gain a new job in a cutting-edge field for every four jobs lost in manufacturing, production, construction and extraction industries. Although there is a gender disparity in manufacturing, it is even greater in areas such as artificial intelligence, automation and computing. As a result, the report predicts that women will only gain one new job for every 20 jobs lost.

“I’ve found that the gender disparity in IT and software development is even more pronounced than in manufacturing, so when you marry those two industries together to get Industry 4.0, it’s really a battle difficult to be more diverse and inclusive,” said Christina Keller. , CEO of a family-owned plastic injection molding manufacturer Cascade Engineering Inc.

As one of the largest women-owned manufacturing companies in the United States, Cascade Engineering – which includes several business units in the United States and Europe – has focused on integrating women, but Keller has stated that many women still retire early from the industry due to a lack of accessibility and familiarity in high school and early college.

Cynthia Hutchison, vice president of the Michigan Industry 4.0 hub automation driveway and head of the recently launched company American Center for Advanced Manufacturingsaid the road to inclusion in manufacturing is a long one.

“I thought at 18 that by the time I graduated from college, those doors would open and more and more would open,” Hutchison said. “And they did, but maybe not at the rate we all hoped for, certainly not in this area – in manufacturing.”

Hutchison said managers and supervisors always tend to hold women to higher standards. And because women are often the only employee representatives in an office, women hold themselves to higher standards. A lack of attention to toxic workplace cultures and unintentionally discriminatory hiring practices also create hidden barriers to maintaining a diverse workforce, Hutchison added.

Launched in June, the US Center for Advanced Manufacturing plans to develop a manufacturing inclusion playbook to help companies succeed in employing new populations by breaking down hidden barriers and changing internal cultures.

“I don’t think things change because we want to or know they should,” Hutchison said. “If one environment is used to being one-way and we’re asking for it to be another, we kind of need to have a playbook that tells people what those changes look like.”

Keller said now — amid labor shortages and supply chain disruptions — is the perfect time to make changes.

“With disruption, innovation has a place to grow,” Keller said. “We have an opportunity in all of this disruption to have real innovation.”

Reinvent capabilities

Michigan Economic Development Corp. Senior vice president of small business solutions Natalie Chmiko said rapid advances in technology will force operational changes for manufacturers. To help Michigan businesses stay ahead of the curve, MEDC has launched an initiative to ensure that 50% of small manufacturers in the state are ready for Industry 4.0 by 2025. 3D printers, data systems, cybersecurity initiatives, and other projects MEDC’s Industry 4.0 Technology Implementation Grants will help make manufacturing faster, less wasteful, less mundane for workers, and more energy efficient. Last week, the MEDC announced a $500,000 grant for 23 businesses across the state.

But Chmiko said Industry 4.0 is also about cultural craftsmanship.

“It’s also a huge shift in the culture of an organization, kind of thinking about innovating in a different way, creating that culture of innovation,” Chmiko said. “Manufacturers today really need to think about, ‘What will our future look like in 5, 10, 30 years, and how can we prepare now for that future?'”

Danielle Schneider, Applications Engineer in Grand Rapids Pridgeon & Clayhopes the cultural overhaul can go beyond physical manufacturing processes, providing new opportunities for women and other groups – such as people with reduced mobility – that the industry has historically neglected.

“If you don’t put a traditional label on something, people are more likely to think outside the box and look at things differently. These issues, concerns or new ideas can then be looked at with fresh eyes in any situation,” Schneider said.

Schneider is also president of the Western Michigan chapter of Women in Manufacturingan organization focused on supporting, promoting and inspiring women in manufacturing.

Technological advances can also help close the gender gap in the manufacturing workforce.

“On the face of it, we think we’re doing things faster, but the reality is we’re going to do things differently,” Hutchison said of Industry 4.0.

Operating differently and with better technology can open doors to new employee populations by removing barriers such as lifting requirements that have traditionally limited the role of women in some manufacturing environments, Hutchison said.

“Most jobs today are more about muscle than brain, and I think in the future it will be more about brain than brain,” Schneider said.

Keller has seen this happen before at Cascade Engineering. A cart stacking task at one of the company’s facilities that traditionally required a high degree of physics is now performed using automation technology.

“It allowed for a greater diversity of abilities at our facility,” Keller said. “As things get more cerebral…there are a lot of benefits to integrating women more.”

Hutchison agrees.

“It’s the most gender- and color-blindness-neutral opportunity we’ll ever have, because the technologies we have allow people to sit at home when needed, sit in the office, go in a manufacturing plant, to lift things that they can’t lift,” Hutchison said.

Prepare for change

According to the US Census Bureau, women currently make up only 30% of employees in manufacturing industries and hold only 25% of management positions in industry. Despite a persistent gender wage gap, women in manufacturing jobs earn a higher median income than women in other industries. A 2021 Women in Manufacturing study also found that 75% of women in the field would recommend it to other women.

“There is a strong correlation between what women want in their careers – challenging jobs with opportunities for advancement – ​​and what modern manufacturing has to offer now and in the future,” Schneider said.

Hutchison noted that “manufacturing is changing rapidly. Most people don’t really understand how fast.

These rapid changes will create significant job change, but Hutchison hopes that Industry 4.0 will primarily be job change, not employment.

For the more than 4 million women who work in manufacturing, continuing to progress in their careers as Industry 4.0 gathers pace will require adapting and expanding existing skills.

“A lot of that is going to be continuing to hone their skills as it relates to technology,” Chmiko said. “It’s definitely going to lead manufacturers to create a culture where they can continually train their employees on new technologies, and those people will also want to look for additional certifications or things they may have that can make them a more competitive person. in the world of talent.

Hutchison is optimistic about the power of educational options in an Industry 4.0 world. Although Industry 4.0 jobs require a more technological skill set than traditional manufacturing jobs, these will not necessarily be skills that must be acquired through a four-year degree.

“It creates opportunities, especially for women who are constrained by children, the environment, whatever issues limit them, to have a shorter engagement to increase their skills and therefore increase their earning potential” , Hutchison said.

Women in Manufacturing (WiM) offers a variety of programs aimed at helping women advance in the field, including a management development program, a leadership institute, and a program to empower women in the production field. Schneider said she encourages women to take advantage of WiM and other personal and professional development opportunities.

“Don’t be afraid to speak up or question things in order to create the best opportunities for you or your business,” Schneider said.


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