Female underrepresentation is not exclusive to tech. At some age, girls hear that they shouldn’t fix cars, program iPhone apps or jump out of military aircraft.

By Holly Mosack (Director of Employee Communications, Advanced Technology Services)

With Sheryl Sandberg recently appearing as a guest on The Colbert Report, it’s safe to say the discussion about gender equality in some workplaces has moved into mainstream conversation. But I believe it’s time we bring two more sectors into the discussion: the military and manufacturing.

Female underrepresentation is also pervasive in the military and manufacturing, but these industries are closely connected. Women with military experience have tremendous opportunities in manufacturing, particularly if they received technical training. Indeed, the manufacturing-military recruitment model may hold powerful insights for tech and other industries that aim to increase female representation in the workforce.

It Starts with the Pipeline Problem

Industries with a lack of women suffer from what I would call a “pipeline problem.”

Underrepresentation is just a symptom of factors that deter women from following careers in tech, the military and manufacturing early in life. We could argue about the role of gender biases, discrimination and cultural stereotypes, but I’d rather answer another question: How do we build pipelines for women?  

The Post-Military Gap

When people leave the military, they often flounder. They don’t think their skills translate anywhere. Veterans go to job fairs, often disappointed to only find law enforcement organizations or military contractors who will send them right back to a base in Afghanistan. Veterans who are ready for civilian life quickly get frustrated.

When I separated from active duty in 2004, chance led me to connect with ATS and land a role as a military recruiter at their headquarters in Peoria, Illinois. The VP of Human Resources was looking for ways to create a targeted recruitment program for veterans. I happened to be an “expert” on what it’s like to get out of the military in the 21st century. I had no recruitment or corporate experience to speak of, yet right off the bat, I was charged with designing a military recruitment program for an organization planning to higher over 800 new employees per year.

Ten years later, 25 percent of our workforce and 30 percent of company leadership is composed of military veterans. Still, too few of these recruits were women.

It’s All About Supply and Demand

 Just like in technology, people with electrical, fluid power and mechanical troubleshooting skills are hard to find — and women with such skills are even harder to find.

High schools and junior colleges don’t exactly teach students how to calibrate a pneumatic transducer. In the military, this skillset is taught, along with the theory behind it; you can’t maintain multimillion dollar aircraft, weapons systems, tanks and other sophisticated equipment without a solid understanding of these fundamentals. No Ohio class ballistic missile submarines outside the U.S. Navy? No problem. The same skills that would apply to performing maintenance on a military submarine apply on the plant floor.

The entire manufacturing world needs more people — men, women, military or not — because they face a massive, growing labor shortage. In a private survey conducted by ATS and ACNielsen, we found that 41 percent of skilled tradespeople will retire by 2017. Similarly, an Industry Week survey commissioned by ATS found that 39 percent of aerospace companies report that a labor shortage is having an ‘extreme’ effect on their ability to grow business while another 24 percent of firms report a “slight” or “moderate” effect.  Of the 138 companies surveyed, 61 percent expect the retirement of the Baby Boomers to impose multimillion dollar costs, with 14 percent of firms forecasting more than $100,000,000 in losses over five years.

 This is why the military is such an appealing labor pool for the manufacturing world, and this is why women with technical skills or military experience have an opportunity to change the trajectory of American manufacturing.

Demand is high not only because of Baby Boomer retirement, but also because we are seeing a growth in manufacturing jobs and reshoring. Since 2010, the U.S. has regained 568,000 factory jobs after losing 5.8 million between 2000 and 2009. Indeed, February marked the seventh consecutive month of expansion for manufacturing employment. Cheap energy from the shale gas boom, skyrocketing wages in China and an improving economy, among other trends, have made the U.S. much more appealing for manufacturers. Harry Moser, founder of the non-profit Reshoring Initiative, estimates that companies that have returned to the U.S. account for 120,000 of the new manufacturing jobs created since 2010.

Thanks to the scarcity of skilled tradespeople and growth in manufacturing, male and female veterans with technical skills stand out in this labor market.

The Call to Women

The growth in manufacturing so far has been good news for everyone except women. According to a report from the office of Senator Amy Klobuchar, Vice Chair of Congress’s Joint Economic Committee, women were excluded from the expansion in manufacturing employment, losing 28,000 manufacturing jobs between February 2010 and April 2013. Women now hold just 27 percent of manufacturing jobs — the lowest share since 1971.

Like in tech, women need to view underrepresentation not as a bad omen, but as an opportunity. With so few women in the candidate pool, recruiters in the manufacturing world are dying to bring more women on board. When we post a job, maybe 1 in 50 candidates are female. Being one of few, women also stand out for promotions.

Military women are particularly appealing because they have already succeeded in an atmosphere dominated by men. They’re used to being ‘one of the guys’ and dressing in a uniform. They can handle a factory environment where everyone’s wearing baseball caps and Dickies.

Unlike many of the services sector jobs women compete for, advanced manufacturing roles are highly secure, don’t require a college degree and open up a path to six figures and the ability to live just about anywhere in the country. With the introduction of clean environments and robotics, manufacturing is no longer what people still imagine. Many grimy, smoky, loud factories have turned into highly automated, pristine environments. Our maintenance teams are using iPads on the job.

Addressing the Pipeline Problem

So why aren’t military women flocking to manufacturing? The question returns us to the pipeline problem I raised in the beginning.

When young Ivy League grads enter their senior year, consulting firms, investment banks and tech firms begin what you could only call a “courtship” period. The fall before graduation, they are visiting campuses, interviewing potential recruits and flying them to their offices in hopes of convincing the best and brightest to join. They have well-established pipelines.

The gap between manufacturers and the military prevents this degree of courtship. I work with transition centers at military bases, Veterans Affairs offices in various locations and military job boards. The U.S. military could help service members begin job specific training and the recruitment process long before they depart from active duty to significantly improve their transition program. Men and women especially enter the job hunt without any pipeline. Instead of targeting specific industries and employers, the military uses mass outreach, offering the market a flood of potential hires without highlighting their skills and proficiencies.

The military could partner with manufacturers to educate and train service members near the end of active duty, so when they separate, they have secure employment. Companies would save resources spent on recruiting by already having a robust pipeline of qualified candidates, the military would lose some of the burden they and VA offices have to help veterans find employment. In this process, manufacturers would have the opportunity to directly reach women who might otherwise struggle to find employment in traditional female-dominated fields.

Help Girls Lose the “No, that’s a boy’s job” Mindset

So what’s the lesson for tech and other industries that are low on women? A first step is to begin targeting women who have thrived in male-dominated college majors, clubs, internships and hobbies (or the military). They will have lost the “No, that’s a boy’s job” mindset. In greater numbers, they will erode stereotypes and encourage the next generation of women to follow. Thus, the future of women in manufacturing and tech depends heavily on what career paths Millennials choose today.

Second, male-dominated industries need to extend the pipeline to women much earlier in life. Kids remember the soldiers, scientists and programmers who visit their schools, host interactive sessions and provide a taste of their careers. A lot of non-profit organizations now target young women and provide tech skills training and mentorship. This will guide more women to the male-dominated opportunities that have established pipelines.

Many other factors lie beyond our control. At some age, girls hear that they shouldn’t fix cars, program iPhone apps or jump out of military aircraft. It’s on each of us to reflect on the conscious and unconscious signals we send to young women.

What tech, the military and manufacturing all have in common is that they will only transform as fast as our attitudes change.

What other male-dominated industries could use more female representation?