Diversity and Inclusion in Manufacturing

March 28, 2016
When addressing the skills gap, companies need to look beyond STEM development and start building an entirely new corporate culture.

It’s always interesting to hear chatter about how automation is going to endanger our workforce. Will the robots take over the factory floor? Yes, probably, in some aspect. But honestly, technology advances and machines have been taking our jobs for a very long time. All it means is that we, the people, have to evolve to build new skills and expertise. So it is not the automation we need to worry about. It’s us.

We have an enormous problem in manufacturing in the form of a skills shortage—from operators to engineers. We need to be preparing the next generation of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals. It goes beyond just setting policies, but finding creative ways to engage young minds and direct them toward a rewarding career in modern manufacturing.

Furthermore, we as an industry need to do our part to attract more women, minorities and Millennials to the manufacturing workforce. That requires a shift in attitude and an overhaul to the current corporate culture in order to make it more diversified and inclusive.

This is a topic we will address at The Automation Conference in May. And, it was a topic of discussion at the National Society of Black Engineers annual conference in Boston last week. Here, Peggie Ward Koon, the 2014 president of the International Society of Automation (ISA) and 2015 chair of The Automation Federation, presented on the significance of a diverse and inclusive workforce to drive corporate innovation.

To understand how to change the corporate culture we must first expand our definition of what workforce diversity is, because it is not only about race and gender, but it is about overall life experiences and relationships. “You see things differently depending upon what you’ve been through,” Koon said.

For that reason, the workforce needs to be a mix of gender, age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, marital status, spiritual beliefs, physical abilities, work and military experience and educational background. And, to be inclusive means making every person count.

Many companies are taking steps toward building a diverse and inclusive culture, but in order to be successful such programs need to be monitored and measured. There must be a commitment from the top executives in order to make this a strategic initiative. It means establishing a position—like a diversity officer—to set policies and repercussions when rules are not followed, and incorporating continuous process improvement around mandatory training and education.

This is not an easy undertaking. “Changing culture is hard because we stereotype people,” Koon said. It is our natural inclination to rely on our own historical experiences to determine how to behave in a situation or react to people. But there is no room for one-sidedness going forward. Diversity and inclusion requires us to look beyond ourselves to understand the experiences of others.

That means keeping an open mind, listening, having compassion. These are behaviors, not skillsets, that make cultivating such a culture all the more difficult to do.

Nevertheless, studies show that diversity and inclusion efforts are key drivers of innovation and critical to company success on a global scale. It is also crucial for companies that want to attract and retain top talent.

Interestingly, when Koon asked the audience the question, “Why do we care?” one young woman responded that she doesn’t want to support a company that doesn’t support her. “The people who make the products should reflect the people who use the products,” she said.

It is a really good point. The Millennials, actually, could be the change agents for this transition in business because it is a generation that celebrates diversity. “In ten years most of our leaders will be Millennials and they expect transparency, communication and engagement,” Koon said.

In the meantime, manufacturers need to do their part to establish a formal diversity and inclusion program. While it is just a portion of what needs to be done to fix the skills gap, it is a critical element of success in the future.