FLORENCE – Since dropping out of Northern Kentucky University 12 years ago, Jill Gillespie has built a successful career as a cosmetologist, first as an independent contractor and now as manager of three salons.
But she decided to stretch herself when she enrolled at Gateway Technical & Community college to pursue an associate's degree in manufacturing engineering technology.
You read that right. She's going from beauty parlors to machine shops with a degree that will allow her to work in almost any manufacturing setting from sheet metal shops to assembly line operations.
For someone who likes to work with her hands and wants to make a high wage with good benefits, “Manufacturing is the best of both worlds,” she said. “It has been a male-dominated industry – until now.”
That was music to the ears of a crowd of manufacturers and educators who gathered at Gateway’s Boone County campus to inaugurate the school’s “Raise the Floor” initiative. It's an ambitious program designed by Gateway and 26 female manufacturing executives and community leaders who want to draw more women into high-skill manufacturing careers.
The program begins in January when 10-15 women and men are expected to take a four-credit-hour class that leads to students receiving a Certified Production Technician certification if they pass four assessments. In March, students can enroll in Mechatronics and Machining Career Pathways to be job-ready by May 15. Completing both courses opens up students to a variety of manufacturing jobs like sheet metal work, injection molding, and assembly line work in the food and auto industries.
Dr. Angie Taylor, Gateway vice president of Workforce Solutions and Innovation, said that with an additional six credit hours of mechatronics and three hours of electrical course work, students would be given first preference for apprenticeships at at least three major manufacturing companies in Northern Kentucky. Companies pay apprentices a full salary and full tuition for students to complete associate's degrees. The coursework already completed goes toward those degrees.
While Gateway has not established specific scholarships for women as part of this new initiative, students would be eligible for standard financial aid and an array of existing scholarships.
The goal of recruiting female manufacturing students and workers is motivated in part by breaking down gender barriers for women and lifting up struggling single mothers.
But its success serves an acute business need as well.
There are 680 manufacturing jobs unfilled in Northern Kentucky today because employers can’t find qualified workers, according to a recent report based on job openings compiled by Northern Kentucky manufacturing businesses. Baby Boomer retirements will mean the number will climb to 2,500 unfilled jobs in three years and 6,250 in 10 years unless Gateway and others find a way to recruit and train workers – male or female, the report said.
“It’s not only a good thing for women. It’s a good thing for our manufacturing partners who desperately need highly skilled workers,” Gateway President and CEO Ed Hughes said.
Taylor said manufacturers are fighting the incorrect perception that manufacturing is a declining business sector. "It kind of lost its reputation as a vibrant, growing part of the economy, a really good sector to be in," she said. "In Northern Kentucky, manufacturing is alive and well. It’s a good place to work, it’s a clean place to work."
Women Could Quickly Double Their Salaries
She emphasized how much better women can provide for themselves and their families by qualifying for and landing a manufacturing job than in lower-skilled industries.
“For some women working in the service industry, they’ll immediately double their salaries,” she said, pointing to entry-level wages for those with a certificate of more than $12 an hour, and starting wages of $20-$25 an hour for those with an associate’s degree.
The initiative will go beyond recruitment of prospective students. The group of female business and community leaders divided its ongoing efforts into four components:
• Awareness: Promoting the initiative to students and the public.
• Training: Overseeing the design and delivery of training to ensure that students are ready to step into jobs that manufacturers need filled.
• Support: Helping women get hired and be effective in their new jobs.
• Process: Working to maintain momentum through finding funding and creating new programming.
“When you get women talking about needs and issues, great ideas emerge,” said Helen Carroll, manager of community relations for Toyota in Erlanger.
She pointed to contributions that women have made to improve Toyota’s cars and trucks – as simple as one employee who impressed upon male
executives the need for bigger sunglasses holders to accommodate women’s sunglasses – as evidence of the potential for female engineers and technicians to lend a new perspective to product development and quality.
Women of all ages are in one of five groups that Gateway has set out to draw into manufacturing. The school has established efforts for a high school pipeline, reaching displaced workers, and veterans. The last pillar – finding senior citizens who can contribute to the manufacturing industry – is a work in progress.
“Stay tuned,” Hughes said.