MILWAUKEE — Camry Simon didn't know anything about manufacturing when she signed up for a free 10-week program learning to make metal parts. To her surprise, she loved it.
"You're creating artwork in a sense. You're taking a piece of metal and turning it into something," said the 24-year-old mother, who is now earning an associate's degree and a journeyman's license in Wisconsin in hopes of working in the manufacturing industry. "To me, that means there's a wide range of ways I could go."
Some companies in need of welders, machinists and other skilled workers are now targeting women, who account for nearly half of the U.S. workforce but hold less than a third of the nation's 12.2 million manufacturing jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Harley-Davidson is among them. The Milwaukee-based company is recruiting women through job fairs, professional organizations and schools as part of its effort to hire more women, minorities and young adults, said Tonit Calaway, Harley's vice president of human resources.
"We know we want to sell to those customers, so we should look like the people we want to sell to," Calaway said. She noted that 21 percent of the company's global manufacturing workers are female.
Women's share of manufacturing jobs peaked in the early 1990s, and remained mostly unchanged until the recession. Since the recession ended in June 2009, men regained more than 500,000 jobs, while women lost another 52,000, according to a report from the National Women's Law Center in Washington.
The reasoning for the discrepancy is unclear, but analyst Katherine Gallagher Robbins, who wrote the report, said she believes companies "are not doing the outreach to get to the women out there." Few manufacturing jobs now require workers to lift more than 35 pounds, and Robbins noted that such jobs often pay $20 or more per hour, compared to an average $12 hourly wage in the female-dominated travel and hospitality industry.
A separate August survey done for Women in Manufacturing, a nonprofit industry group, found that women ages 17 to 24 tended to see the industry as male-dominated and dull.
That's a perception Terry Blumenthal is trying to change.
Blumenthal speaks at high schools near the Rockwell Automation plant she manages in Ladysmith, Wisconsin. She was 15 when she began working part-time at the company, which makes starters, relays, tower lights and other products. When she finished college, she was offered a job on the shop floor — and found her calling.
"Everybody thinks of it as the place where you get dirty, you have to be very mechanical," the 48-year-old said. "But that's not it. ... There's good money, there's great growth opportunity, and anybody can do it."