A Rosie future for manufacturing?

There is no limitation on learning and the boundaries of the engineering discipline are limited only by the engineer’s imagination.

By Bob Vavra, CFE Media September 28, 2018

She is an iconic American image-on a par with Uncle Sam or the fife and drum players from the American Revolution. Rosie The Riveter’s polka-dot bandanna, her denim shirt, her determined look, and the phrase, "We Can Do it!" were part of a campaign during World War II to bring more women into shipbuilding, manufacturing, and other war-related industries. At a time when more men were on the battlefields, women were needed on the plant floor, and Rosie The Riveter was their inspiration. Less than 1% of the aircraft manufacturing workforce prior to World War II were women; by 1943, more than 310,000 women-65% of the total workforce-were employed in the industry.

It was the start of a subtle change in the make-up of the American workforce that continues today. Women now make up 47% of the overall American workforce-almost double the percentage in 1945. Yet in manufacturing, the numbers continue to lag, and in engineering jobs, the percentage is even smaller.

The Census Bureau reported in 2017 that just 29% of manufacturing workers were women, and several reports peg the number of women engineers in manufacturing at less than one in five. This disparity, and the overall need for more skilled workers in a changing manufacturing environment, has brought more attention to the gender gap in our industry. And as a result, the numbers are improving, and more women are entering manufacturing as a career.

We do know that when women were needed for the front lines of manufacturing, they responded and delivered the arsenal we needed to win World War II. There is no limitation on learning and the boundaries of the engineering discipline are limited only by the engineer’s imagination. If we reflect on great engineering achievements since World War II, from the Atlas rocket to the iPhone, we see new ideas were created by building on previous moments of genius. The iPhone is nothing more than a sleeker, portable version of Bell’s original idea.

We are building on Rosie The Riveter’s legacy to encourage women to enter manufacturing, because we need more people overall in the profession. The idea that we have allowed almost half of our workforce to overlook engineering as a profession is unacceptable. And we must always do more with our entire manufacturing workforce. We need more great people to choose manufacturing.

Our annual Engineering Leaders Under 40 recognition is one way to take stock in what we’ve already achieved. This month’s cover story about six women at one company who answered the call to our industry and to engineering as a career choice is an example of success. This story must be shared with young people who are looking for a secure, high-tech career; former military personnel seeking to take advantage of their training in the private sector; those looking for a better life in America; and workers who have been displaced as the economy evolves and new ideas change the way we work.

I don’t believe we need another icon like Rosie The Riveter to propel us forward in this effort because there are examples in this month’s Plant Engineering that are more powerful-real people with real aspirations for their futures who provide encouragement and inspiration for others to follow.

But we certainly can borrow Rosie’s words: We Can Do It!

Bob Vavra, content manager for Plant Engineering, CFE Media, bvavra@cfemedia.com.