Lori and Traci Tapani say people thought they were crazy when they left careers in accounting and finance to help run the small metal fabrication business their father had founded.
Manufacturing was dirty and dull, went the stereotype. It was not at all a suitable career for a woman.
The Tapani sisters found that they loved the business.
Now co-presidents of Wyoming Machine Inc. in Stacy, Minn., they are part of a budding movement to attract more women into an industry that has been a bright spot in the economic recovery. The Tapanis go to schools and job fairs to encourage more students to consider manufacturing, a career they say offers plenty of opportunity and reward.
In the process, they hope to serve as role models.
"It's exciting to see the things your company has made in use out in the world every day," Traci Tapani said. "We've seen computer-type products we have made show up on television."
The sisters and other female manufacturing executives acknowledge that they are fighting societal norms. Men accounted for more than two-thirds of Minnesota's manufacturing workforce as of the second quarter of 2011, according to U.S. census figures.
That includes nonproduction jobs, so the actual proportion of women working on factory floors as welders or machinists -- jobs that manufacturers are having trouble filling -- could be much lower.
At the moment, however, any campaign to recruit more women into manufacturing faces a core challenge: There's not a ton of hiring, period. Manufacturing is doing better than many industries in today's economy, but it's not adding jobs like gangbusters, said Gary Burtless, a labor economist at the Brookings Institution.
Even counting jobs added during the recovery, manufacturing is still down about 1.8 million jobs from the start of the recession in 2007. "It's had recovery," Burtless said. "It's not a great recovery."
Still, many manufacturers report difficulty finding qualified people for jobs they need to fill. The areas with the greatest demand include welders and skilled machinists, along with engineers, said Dan Meckstroth, chief economist for the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation in Arlington, Va.
Observers say demand for workers will only increase with the gradual departure of the baby boom generation from the workforce.
"There's a severe crunch time coming in the labor market," said Robert Musgrove, president of Pine Technical College. "We need all hands on deck."
For manufacturers, getting more girls and women interested in the field could be part of the solution.
At Musgrove's school in Pine City, there's an annual Women in Technology Career Day, aimed at sixth-graders, that features demonstrations and presentations from area companies. The school is also considering whether to revive a summer manufacturing camp for girls.
Yet only 15 percent of students in the college's manufacturing degree program are women. While that's better than a few years ago, when the number was more like 5 percent, Musgrove says there's still room for improvement.
At Minnesota's manufacturing companies, the gender gap is getting bigger.
As the state shed close to 80,000 manufacturing jobs over the past decade, the number of women in the industry shrank faster than the number of men. State data show about 25 percent fewer women working in manufacturing than a decade ago, compared with an 18 percent decline for men.
Traci Tapani says girls often express concerns about manufacturing careers that don't show up with boys. She recalled an industry fair in Chicago where high school girls asked her what they would have to wear on a production floor.
"I told them there are some areas where you might have to wear safety equipment, but that they shouldn't think they'd have to start wearing steel-toed boots," she said.
Tapani, who previously worked in international finance for Wells Fargo, said she has spent time on Wyoming Machine's production floor and even took a welding class at Hennepin Technical College to gain an understanding of the work the company does.
Sarah Richards, CEO of Jones Metal Products in Mankato, said much of the work in modern manufacturing requires advanced math skills and knowledge of cutting-edge technology.
"From the outside looking in, manufacturing seems old and dirty and slow-moving," Richards said. "In reality it's quite the opposite."
At high school career days, Richards' company typically has a booth where students can fabricate objects out of metal. She said she's careful to include things that appeal to females as well as males. She said she tries to convey the feeling of tangible accomplishment that comes from working in manufacturing.
"There's a feeling of 'I made something and it matters,'" she said, citing her company's production of donation boxes found in every McDonald's, collecting funds for the Ronald McDonald House charity.
Darlene Miller, CEO of Permac Industries in Burnsville, helped start the Right Skills Now program at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis and South Central College in Faribault and Mankato. The recently launched program combines a 16-week curriculum and an eight-week apprenticeship and is designed to turn out entry-level machinists.
Miller said she is focused on attracting more women to manufacturing jobs. "Attracting more women is absolutely part of the solution to the shortage of workers in manufacturing" said Miller, whose company makes components for the medical, aerospace and food and beverage industries.
Ashley Wagner tested well and won a women in manufacturing scholarship to Dunwoody.
Wagner, 22, is the only woman at the school pursuing an associate's degree in applied science and electrical engineering. She recently toured Medtronic, the E.J. Ajax factory in Fridley, her mom's job at General Mills, and Honeywell, where her grandfather worked with electronics for 30 years.
Inspired, she's determined to follow her grandfather and is applying for manufacturing internships.
"I definitely always knew I was a hands-on math-and-computers kind of a girl," Wagner said. "I was not a typical, 'I want to go do hair' or 'be a nurse' girl. I appreciate that. But I knew I was able to use my hands and brain in a different way than most girls can."
E.J. Daigle, Dunwoody's director of manufacturing, admits that reversing stereotypes is a long-term battle. There is one female out of 18 students in the first group of Right Skills Now participants. And Dunwoody's machine tool program currently has one female among 50 students, while the ratio is reversed -- one male out of 50 -- in the school's interior design program.
Still, Daigle hopes the Right Skills Now program can dispel the myth that manufacturing is dirty and dull. "These days the tool of choice for a machinist is a computer," he said.
Miller, who recently touted the benefits of manufacturing careers on a tour of Burnsville area schools with Sen. Al Franken, said she's involved in several industry groups that are trying to attract more women.
One objective is to project the idea that manufacturing is a profession, not just a job.
"The perception that you go into manufacturing because you don't have talent is so wrong," Miller said. "The truth is, it's quite the opposite."
Staff writers Jennifer Bjorhus and Dee DePass contributed to this report.
Susan Feyder • 612-673-1723