DCIT panel discusses women in manufacturing

Penny Watson and Sue St. Amour talk about their experiences working in a male-dominated industry. Photo by Samantha Lyles

By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, slyles@newsandpress.net

The Darlington County Institute of Technology convened a panel discussion on Monday, November 6 to brainstorm new methods for bringing more young women into the fields of industry and manufacturing.

“We’re trying to teach our teachers and the guidance counselors at the middle and high schools a little bit more about non-traditional students and non-traditional employees, which in our specific case is females in areas that are traditionally male dominated, like manufacturing, carpentry, electricity, machine tool, auto tech and auto collision,” said DCIT director Robbie Smith. “We want to be able to better recruit and retain more female students in these fields.”

The panel included Penny Watson and Sue St. Amour from Nucor, Adrienne Temple of South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership, Tracy Kuhn of Gregory Electric, Joyce Hill of KPI/Fusion, Andrea White of Sonoco, Keri Taylor of North Industrial Machine, and Cheryl Lewis from the SC Department of Commerce.

Temple discussed the changing perception of manufacturing, as factories have become more automated, cleaner, and safer for workers in the modern era. She observed that wages have improved as well, noting that while manufacturing comprises only about 4.5 percent of the total businesses in South Carolina, it is responsible for about 20 percent of our state’s total wages. She said that worries some parents and students have over whether they would make a good wage with an entry level manufacturing job are unfounded, saying that the pay is actually better than average.
“These students can actually make a good living… The average manufacturing job in our state pays a little over $54,000 a year. Other jobs that are not manufacturing pay about $40,000 per year. And you’ve got ranges with some technical skill sets that are very much in demand,” said Temple, adding that “trade skills, work ethics, and communication skills” are highly prized by industry employers.

Smith said that the perception remains common among some parents that their kids must attend a four-year college if they are to have any kind of stable financial future, despite the shrinking job markets for those with four-year degrees and the broadening prospects for students with high-level trade and technical training.

“We still have a tough time getting the message through to parents to allow their students to come to a school like DCIT, because the thought process is that they’ve got to go to a four-year college or they’re never going to make any money,” said Smith.

Hill cited data from the Deloitte Study on Technology and Jobs, which predicts a “skill gap” opening up in manufacturing as technology takes a greater role and older employees retire from the workforce.

“Women are the largest untapped resource in this area. We only have about 29 percent of women working in this area and women make up about 45 percent of the population, so there’s a lot of opportunity for women to fill those jobs that are going to be lost when the Baby Boomers leave,” said Hill.

Watson and St. Amour discussed the ways that companies like Nucor encourage merit-based pay and fair employment practices by using open hiring pools and uniform compensation for jobs, regardless of the worker’s gender. They spoke about the diversity at Nucor and the number of jobs available to women in every field from sales to production.

As a point of contrast, St. Amour shared a story of how the average industrial workplace has changed for the better since she trained as a welder and tested for a job 20 years ago. She recalled that even though she passed her stick welding test with flying colors, she was still refused employment (with an unnamed company) because she would have been “too much of a distraction” for her male co-workers.

One guidance counselor in attendance asked if the panelists might consider speaking to students in person, or even making a manufacturing/industry informational video that students and parents could watch together when they are considering options for their career track. Most panelists spoke up immediately and said they would be willing to help however possible.

Author: Duane Childers

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