The US manufacturing industry is flourishing. The skilled manufacturing workforce is not.

Promising numbers, manufacturing isn't going anywhere: it's primed to grow. According to the Accenture 2014 Manufacturing Skills and Training Study (a study about the state of manufacturing and potential threats to its continued growth), 82% of survey respondents plan to increase production, with 50% saying that they plan to increase US-based production by at least 5 percent over the next five years. What's more, almost 25% of those surveyed intend to increase manufacturing roles in the US by more than 10% in the next five years.

However, despite the slated growth over the next five years, US manufacturers are facing quite the dilemma: a shortage in skilled workers.

Although there's been an influx in automation within manufacturing, resulting in the need for a smaller workforce, there continues to be a high demand for skilled and highly skilled workers. In fact, according to Accenture's study, 80% of the manufacturing roles fell into the skilled and highly skilled categories.

And this is where the problem lies: there aren't enough qualified job seekers in the industry. And unfortunately, this supply and demand issue will only continue to grow as the current skilled workforce reaches retirement age over the next 10 to 15 years.

With the encroachment of a workforce shortage, now, right now, is the time (albeit a bit late) to find workers who are ready and willing to enroll in the education needed to produce highly skilled, capable workers. Training can last anywhere between 12 and 36 months, and if we don't act quickly, we will reach a time when production suffers due to a limited amount of workers. And this would be a shame; especially given that the youth unemployment rate (ages 16-24) is at approximately 16%.

We have the manpower and the positions to fill – about 600,000 vacant ones – so what's the problem?

As you might have suspected, there are several factors that have resulted in the rift between the number of manufacturing jobs available and a qualified workforce to fill these openings. These factors include, but certainly aren't limited to:

• Educational and training institutions failing to keep up with the technological changes in manufacturing
• A lack of knowledge and education about the careers available in manufacturing
• A lack of interest in the manufacturing sector
• Misconceptions about manufacturing, the jobs available and the compensation associated with them

Despite the lack of education and interest in manufacturing, the case for finding and educating skilled workers is widely unexploited. As an industry, and even more, a country, we aren't doing enough to fill this chasm.

So, how do we do this?

I, along with several other manufacturing resources and associations, propose using what, or rather who, we have.

And we have women.

Manufacturing's untapped resource

Women represent a demographic that is widely neglected in the manufacturing sector.

Representing nearly 50% of the labor workforce, only 24.8% of the manufacturing workforce is comprised of women. Not only are women a widely untapped manufacturing resource, the number of women in leadership roles in manufacturing companies in America trails the number of women in leadership roles in other US industries.

women in business vs women in manu figure

As illustrated in the figure above, women are significantly underutilized when it comes to job fulfillment with skilled workers.

With the rate at which the industry is growing, coupled with the number of skilled workers approaching retirement, the manufacturing industry is and will likely continue to face a workforce shortage. That is, unless we can find a way to interest young people – women included – in pursuing manufacturing careers.

Creating interest in manufacturing as a career for women

I could go on and on about the state of manufacturing and the role of women within the industry, but that's not going to help us solve the issue at hand, which is: how do we create interest in manufacturing among young women and girls?

To increase the number of women in manufacturing while helping decrease the shortage of skilled workers, here are three areas where we can get started:

1. Erase common misconceptions about women in manufacturing
2. Enlighten women (and young girls) about the countless opportunities within manufacturing
3. Provide education and training programs for women to succeed in manufacturing careers

Let's explore these three areas...

1. Erase common misconceptions about women in manufacturing

Unfortunately, the reputation that accompanies manufacturing is not the most glamorous one. As we know, perception doesn't always align with reality, but in an industry dominated by men, correcting misconceptions about women in the industry should be a primary concern. This is especially because the correction could result in a decrease in the skilled worker shortage.

A simple fact, women don't have many role models in the manufacturing world. In fact, other than "Rosie the Riveter", there aren't any well-known, female influencers in the industry. Whether we find a real-life influencer or create a fictional character of the modern female manufacturer, it's imperative that we transform the image of women in manufacturing.

Additionally, we must effectively communicate the many benefits of working in manufacturing.

In a study conducted by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, 600 women in manufacturing were surveyed about their experiences, and about how the industry can recruit, retain and advance women in manufacturing.

The study, Untapped resource: How manufacturers can attract, retain, and advance talented women, found that 75% of the women surveyed were "pleased with the quality of jobs." This, in addition to the other reasons manufacturing is an "attractive career path", is the information we need to relay to young women.

Here are the top attributes of working in manufacturing, as told by real women working in manufacturing:

attributes of manufacturing careers

2. Enlighten women (and young girls) about the countless opportunities within manufacturing

Although the number of women in executive roles in the manufacturing sector is below that of other industries, it's important to show women and young girls that there is room for growth within manufacturing as a career.

While many believe a career in manufacturing means working on production lines (which is the area most desperate for skilled workers), there are countless other applications within the sector, including:

• Supply chain management
• Logistics
• Research and development
• Engineering
• Industrial engineering
• Quality control (testing)
• Marketing
• Sales

Catering to various skills, training and education, a career in manufacturing has endless opportunities – we just have to enlighten women about these roles.

3. Provide education and training programs for women to succeed in manufacturing careers

Probably the most important element of building a skilled workforce for the future, proper education and training will provide women with the abilities to succeed in manufacturing.

With initiatives like STEM, education and awareness about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professions has increased over the past several years. Beyond this, we have to entice women into programs that teach them the skills needed to have a flourishing career in manufacturing – like the JARC programs in Chicago.

A publically-funded program, the Jane Addams Resource Corp.'s "Women in Manufacturing" trains Chicago-area women on the skills needed for skilled production jobs.

A great example, this is exactly the type of program needed to educate and train women for a successful and fulfilling career in manufacturing.

Manufacturing's future

It's clear that if we don't start aggressively addressing manufacturing's undeniable skilled worker shortage, the industry could be in a great deal trouble. Not only are countless companies at risk, but the US economy is at risk as well.

A potentially detrimental worker shortage, we aren't without options when it comes to building up the skilled labor workforce – we just have to "think outside the box". And this thinking should begin with pulling from one of our greatest and most untapped resources: women.