Employers, educators encourage women to land manufacturing jobs

Despite an abundance and a variety of career opportunities available in manufacturing, women represent only about a quarter of the people employed in the industry nationwide. Worse, it’s a statistic that is trending downward in recent years.

With a surge of newly created manufacturing jobs in the Tampa Bay area, why is there a lack of female applicants?

Industry observers say much of it may have to do with general misconceptions about jobs in manufacturing, such as: All are dirty, greasy and gritty, and such jobs mean working in hot, uncomfortable factories without air conditioning.

That’s why efforts are being made locally to debunk these myths by educating girls and women to the vast and varied opportunities available within manufacturing. Beyond the production end of the business, for example, jobs in the manufacturing sector include accounting, finance, human resources and sales. Moreover, there are few production jobs that women can’t do just as well as men.

“It’s a stable career path and there are a lot of opportunities for growth,” says Stephanie Adams, director of plant operations at Accuform Signs in Brooksville. “And even though the wage gap is a little different for men and women in the workforce in general, that gap is narrower in manufacturing.”

To help communicate opportunities in manufacturing, 83 Degrees takes a look at three successful Tampa Bay area women working in and around manufacturing, how the industry has shaped their lives, and how they are affecting change by serving as role models for more women to give manufacturing a chance. 

Nidia Morales, team leader, Cardio Command

As an 18-year-old wife and mother of two boys, Nidia Morales loved to build puzzles. And you know what they say when you’re looking for a job: Find something you love doing. So that’s exactly what she did.

Not that she found a job building jigsaw puzzles, but Morales did find a job in manufacturing, and more than 30 years later, she continues to build things today at Cardio Command.    

Without a high school diploma or special training, and wanting to help her husband support their family, Morales found an ad for a job that required no special skills -- and promised to teach her the specific skills needed for the job. She applied and was hired. It was a bold step.

“Yes, I was scared when I was on the assembly line for the first time,” she says. “I said I can’t do this.”

But she did do it, and today, instead of being the student, Morales is the teacher -- and a team leader at Tampa-based Cardio Command, where she continues to work with her hands, building a variety of cardiology-related products. “I’m not in the teaching field, but I love to teach,” she says.

“What I can tell the young ladies is once you get out there and realize it is something that you do like, you’re going to love it,” says Morales, who has since returned to school and gotten her diploma. “For me, I loved the puzzles, but I found out … (when) I went into the field, it was the same thing (as making puzzles), only I was going to get paid.” 

When she’s at work and making heart catheters these days, Morales is reminded of her mother. “My mom died of a heart condition. And when I’m making catheters, I’m thinking, ‘Wow, my mom could have used one of these’. And I’m so proud to make them because, first of all, made in the USA. They’re made here. And my hands touched them. 

“It made me happy to know I made something for humanity. Not just because we’re out here doing it and, oh, it’s just another job. No, it’s not just another job. It’s a job that I’m proud of and I feel like I had something to do with that. When you put your hands on it, and you see that product going out the door, you’re like, ‘I did that.’ ”

Shannon Sweatman, HR Director, Southern Manufacturing Technologies

She laughs about it now, but when Shannon Sweatman was attending Chamberlain High School in Tampa, she never thought she’d end up with a career in manufacturing. Never mind that her father, Roy Sweatman, was President of Southern Manufacturing Technologies, the company where she has now worked for nearly 18 years.

“It’s not like I didn’t know manufacturing existed,” Shannon Sweatman says, “but I didn’t really pay much attention. I never considered it an option or even thought about it.”

About the same time she graduated from USF in 2002, the company’s quality manager resigned, an opening was created and Sweatman filled the position. “It was not a planned event,” says Sweatman, who now oversees HR, IT and special projects. “I’m involved with a lot of things out on the shop floor but I’ve never run a machine.”

In a company that employs about 110, Sweatman is part of a statistical minority represented by about 15 percent women. It’s a statistic that is low even by national standards.

One explanation for the lack of women in manufacturing is the “filth factor.” 

“I think some people almost compare manufacturing to coal mines,” Sweatman says. “(They fear) they’re going to go home covered in soot or something vs. what the reality is. A lot of women don’t think manufacturing is for women. A lot of that is just because of the misconception that it’s dark and it’s dirty.

“If women actually saw what manufacturing is these days -- sure, there ARE dark and dirty shops; there are some processes that you just can’t get away from the dirtiness of it, but most manufacturing companies are going to have high technology, they’re going to be clean, they’re going to be well-lit. Yeah, you might get some oil on your hands.”

Opportunity for women, however, is not the issue, Sweatman says. The challenge is attracting women to the industry. It’s an issue SMT has attempted to address by offering several tours a year to middle and high school students in an effort to generate early interest and make them aware of jobs available to them now and after high school.

“Everything is available to women,” Sweatman says. “There’s nothing that men can do, in our company anyway, that women can’t do. Maybe in some heavy-lifting type of position somewhere in manufacturing that might be the case, but for the most part I would say anything available to the men is available to the women.”

Nancee Sorenson, President, Hillsborough Community College, Brandon campus

“I’m a little bit disappointed, honestly, that women still represent only 27 percent of the (national) workforce in manufacturing,” says Nancee Sorenson, the first female President at HCC’s Brandon campus.

Although Sorenson has never held a job in manufacturing, she recognizes its importance to the community and has spent much of her career advocating for workforce development while working directly with business and industry.

“I think we have to set goals to move the needle a little bit,” Sorenson says of the current downward trajectory of women in manufacturing. “I don’t know what the right number is, but it has declined from 30 percent to 27 percent. So it’s probably more about setting some goals to move the needle (up).”

The question is, how can this be accomplished? How can employers and educators get girls and women to realize that there’s far more to manufacturing than hot, dirty factories and tedious assembly lines?

“I think that we have to segment the concept of manufacturing into distinct careers that girls can understand, that their families can understand,” Sorenson says. “I think we’ve got to broaden the thinking and expose parents and young girls to the many, many, many occupations that are available under these kinds of majors.”

Much is already being done to attract young women – and men – to the possibilities in manufacturing. They include:

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs at magnet schools go a long way toward introducing and educating students about manufacturing.

Roboticon is a locally sponsored and USF-hosted “sport for the mind” competition for K-12 robotics teams from across the Tampa Bay area, nation and world. https://roboticon.net

Manufacturing Alliance of Hillsborough County was found by Hillsborough County, HCC, Hillsborough County public schools and CareerSource Tampa Bay for the purpose of, among other things, helping businesses access talent and resources. 

FLATE (Florida Advanced Technological Education Center) educates the manufacturing workforce in Florida, in part by coordinating tours of manufacturing facilities in the Tampa Bay area. 

FIRST Lego League is a competition among elementary and middle school students that promotes robotics, imagination, teamwork and presentation skills in solving assigned real-world problems. HCC sponsors the Suncoast affiliate which extends from Hillsborough County to Key West. 

Also, each summer HCC hosts a popular and well-attended robotics camp for girls -- and boys -- in middle and high school, in addition to a “pink-only” camp for the girls.

“Florida has made a big commitment to manufacturing, and that’s exciting,” Sorenson says. 

In deciding which job is the best fit for an individual, Sorenson suggests using a career assessment tool.

“A career assessment tool not only identifies strengths and interests,” Sorenson says, “but it really opens their minds and provides information to the hundreds of job descriptions and job classifications that are out there for us to participate in.” 
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Read more articles by Andy Smith.

Andy Smith is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.