I recently opened a TEDx Talk with the statement, “I was raised in what we call the Man Box.”
And it’s true. I was. But even though my father demanded the kind of physical endurance and emotional stoicism that are usually only required of male children, he wasn’t much for letting me use his power tools. Posthole digger, sure. Hand saw, sure. Hammer, no problem. I still have that hammer, and I think I still have calluses from the handles of the posthole digger. I don’t know who inherited the hand saw but I’m suddenly feeling nostalgic.
Not that I had a driving passion for using tools, with or without power. My interest in power was more in the power of the mind, the power of words, and the power of possibility. On the other hand, I didn’t like being told, “Dixie, you can’t do that. You’re a girl.”
It would be easy to assume that most girls wanted to use power tools for the same reason I did, they’re stubborn, they think they can do anything boys can do, and they have something to prove. But as we wind down Women’s History Month I’ve been thinking about the places where women will make the greatest impact in the next few years. And manufacturing and the skilled trades keep coming to mind. Here’s why.
Women Need a New Frontier
All of the women honored this month by the National Women’s History Project meet this year’s theme criteria:
Nevertheless She Persisted: Honoring Women Who Fight All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
If you look at the list you’ll see that each of those women not only made a difference for women, they made a positive impact on the world. Women are ready for a new arena in which to make a difference. Skilled trades and manufacturing could very well be that for them.
Not every person changes the world by setting out to do so. Jennifer Stemmley didn’t start her first job expecting to change the world, or even to own a business. She took the job at Laser Light Technologies as a laser operator right out of high school, working third shift. Her parents were factory workers and, as she says, she was raised with very little except a lot of love and a good work ethic. She was grateful for that upbringing, but she wanted more and she was willing to do whatever it took to move upward at the company.
At the time, Laser Light was owned and run by its founder, a woman named Phyllis Hannan. Having a woman owner might have had some influence on the culture, but Jennifer says she experienced very little resistance as a young woman moving up through the ranks and responsibilities. She moved to first shift, then to Quality Manager and Production Manager. She learned to program and troubleshoot the lasers, working toe-to-toe and nose-to-nose with the mostly male engineers. She got her Six-Sigma Green Belt and spearheaded the grueling process of getting ISO certification for the company.
While Laser Light had many types of lasers creating many types of products, Jennifer particularly loved working with the lasers that etched bricks. Perhaps in part because the etching was performed for companies using memorial bricks for fundraising and each name etched in the brick was a sign that someone had contributed to a cause that meant something to them and to others.
She had always wanted to be a business owner and was heartbroken when her bankers told her that, although the business plan she presented for a unique retail fashion concept was one of the best plans they’d ever seen, as a single mother with no collateral they could not finance her dream. But after Phyllis’ son, Frank, took over at Laser Light and began to move away from big scale machining and focus on micromachining of medical and electrical components she began to think about what it would take to buy the brick etching operation.
It’s been more than 15 years since she did just that. It was a big leap. Her husband wasn’t the only one who thought she was a little crazy. But she went from a teenager working nights at the local manufacturing company to an owner-operator, as well as a business and community leader. Fundraising Brick has exceeded the sales goals she set every single year, and Jennifer has stepped back to a mostly administrative and marketing role, allowing her to work from home most days while she raised her three children, now 18, 17, and 12. She makes time to be engaged with her kid’s activities, from school projects to volleyball tournaments. And while she doesn’t know if any of her children will follow her into the business, and won’t even let them try until they’ve had some work experience with someone else, she knows she has provided them with time, love, attention, as well as the opportunities and privileges that the income from the business supplies.
And she still has the joy of knowing that every name engraved on a brick represents love and money flowing into causes all over the country. One of Jennifer’s favorites, and the most heartbreaking for her, is Angel Moms, but they all matter. From colleges and hospitals to parks and zoos, those bricks signify a difference being made in the world.
Jennifer’s choice to pursue her dream of business ownership through manufacturing makes a difference in the world too. As a woman with national reach through her company she sets an example for women who are looking for new opportunities to own a business, provide jobs in their community, earn a living and a reputation, and be an active, engaged parent and spouse. While skilled trades or manufacturing may not be the first thing that comes to mind for those women, with more women like Jennifer working in those fields and taking on business ownership that is likely to change.
The Trades Need the New Blood
Another TEDx Talk presented at the same TEDx Crestmoor Park event where I spoke brought out some sobering statistics. Susan Frew, a business coach, speaker, and co-founder of Sunshine Plumbing, Heating, Air, spoke about the soon-to-be-upon-us staffing crisis in the skilled trades. According to the information presented in her talk, we are facing a skills gap that will lead to longer wait times and higher costs for everything from home construction to appliance repair. In fact, more than one million skilled workers will be needed by 2020. This article from Forbes agrees, the most difficult skilled workforce to fill is, and has been for at least three years, the trades.
Susan and her husband, with whom she founded the business, saw an opportunity. They realized that nearly 80 percent of their customers were women, why, they wondered, were there so few women working in the field?
Susan was no stranger to work that was traditionally a man’s place. She was raised by a carpenter and her first job was pumping gas at a gas station in New Jersey. While her dad encouraged her, many customers were shocked and she remembers receiving a lot of tips because people felt sorry for the poor girl doing a “man’s job.” As a business coach she seemed naturally drawn to the trades, she coached businesses in 17 different trades before co-founding the plumbing and HVAC business. So encouraging women to enter the trades just made sense to her.
Women, she says, benefit from entry into a position with a great hiring salary and benefit package plus a workday that is usually 7AM-3PM, which is a great schedule for a working mom as she would be home right at the end of the school day and in time for afternoon extracurricular activities. Plus, it doesn’t include the temptation to take your work home with you. No late night calls or emails and no project deadlines.
Susan also says that, in her experience, women bring a new level of skills to the trades. Clearer organization, community, critical thinking, and creativity are some common talents that women contribute. If men are open to it, adding these skills to the job site enhances everyone’s job performance just as it has in white-collar fields.
Men Need the Freedom Too
The more ways in which we free women to pursue any dream and any career, the more ways in which we will have to free men to do the same. It has already happened. As women took on the traditional world of business, men took on their rights to be fully involved parents and caregivers. As women took on the roles of doctors and dentists, men took on the roles of nurses and hygienists. It hasn’t been easy, or smooth, but it has been an organic change that will continue to grow.
Catalyst reports that in 2016 only 6.3 percent of American women worked in male-dominated occupations. So what good could come of more women gaining the skills to work in the trades? Besides the advantages to businesses having a larger hiring pool and consumers having more choices, reduced wait times for services, and fees kept in line with availability of services, what are the advantages to men?
Of course, it depends on what each man values. I know that the owner of Laser Light benefited from having a buyer for a division that no longer fit in with his business model and company vision. I know Jennifer’s family, including her son and husband, benefits from the business she owns and runs and the flexibility it provides. I know Susan’s husband benefits from having a partner in his business and that the women they employ and many more that they inspire have partners and children who benefit from them working a job with good pay, reasonable hours, and less take-home stress than a job in retail, customer service, business management, education, medicine, or other of the roles that women typically take on would allow.
Men will also benefit as women in the field demand and innovate less body-taxing ways to get the job done. One reason that skilled labor is facing the shortages in the hiring pool is that the physical demands keep most people from working into their 60s and 70s the way they might want to if they love what they do and their body was up to the task. While jobs that require brute strength and stamina might be a source of masculine pride, they’re also a source of masculine pain. If we can reduce or eliminate that pain not only will more people, including women, be able and excited about training for that type of work, they’ll also be able to extend their careers and possibly their lives.
I believe that men will benefit from working alongside of women in the field. When embraced, diversity opens the door to synergy and drives innovation. And that is good for everyone.