May 16 2023


Recruiting Women and the Next Generation of Manufacturing Through Networking:

An Interview with Nicole Wolter, President and CEO of HM Manufacturing, Inc.

Why Recruiting Women into Manufacturing Matters

When it comes to women in manufacturing, we know that they make up about 32% of the industry’s workforce, and one out of four manufacturing leaders are women. With the skilled labor shortage and the fact that women in manufacturing earn 16% more than the national median annual income, the low percentage is puzzling.

Meet Nicole Wolter, President and CEO of HM Manufacturing, Inc. She looks to encourage women to enter manufacturing and its leadership. We spoke with her about her experience and asked her what the industry can do to recruit more women. Her insight not only offers ideas for female representation in the industry but how to attract Gen Z workers, regardless of gender, by utilizing networking both on social media and in person through various industry associations.

Meet Nicole Wolter:

Ms. Wolter is a second-generation manufacturer, but she wasn’t expected to take over the family business nor had any initial desire to. As a kid, she would tag along with her dad to work, bringing her Breyer toy horses and pretending to ship them to various places in various quantities with packing slips. As she grew up, her dad, HM’s founder, knew she’d be a great hire, but also knew she needed “to get kicked around a bit”. 

She majored in chemical engineering, and after a brief stint in the financial industry, she started at HM with thicker skin. She started at the bottom, doing everything from shipping and receiving, installing flanges and bearings, to inventory, purchasing, and accounting. The expectation was higher for her than any other employee—nothing was handed to her as she continued to explore all the areas of the business.

The more she learned, the more she wanted to keep learning. In 2014, she took classes and training for CAD and 3D modeling as well as for precision machining. Within those first five years, she had experience in both the office and the shop, giving her the tools and empathy to be an effective leader. For the past five years, she’s been leading the company. She never thought it was something she’d love, but she does.

“It is so cool to take a raw piece of material and turn it into art and see how it changes at every stage.”

Nicole Wolter

The Perception of a Male-Dominated Industry

The fact that manufacturing is known to be a male-dominated industry is enough to steer women away from considering a career, but change is happening. Research shows that from 2010-2020, the share of women in manufacturing jobs rose in every working-age category. The industry still has more ground to cover, and Ms. Wolter knows there are some disconnects in information and perception that need to be addressed.

Jobs for Women in Manufacturing by Age: 2000-2021

Her first disconnect affecting women’s pursuit of manufacturing is the lack of women in STEM. This is a larger initiative happening across the country and is improving. There are other areas like sales, marketing, and accounting that many women do pursue degrees in, but don’t think to apply to industrial industries. Why? That’s the second disconnect, a visual imbalance and lack of female representation in the industry, especially in leadership roles. Being the only woman in the room is tough, and people want to see other people like themselves succeeding.

She realized it was about proving her abilities to herself, not others. This confidence is the third and biggest disconnect—societally we don’t instill that kind of confidence in young women. As an example, she uses the statistic that says women won’t apply for a job unless they have every single skill set listed on a job application, while men will go for it regardless of lacking a percentage of skills. To do her part, she strongly supports interns and makes a point to hire female candidates. She says it’s about giving people that visibility and that results in a larger pool of skilled and experienced professionals in an industry in need of more workers. 

Understanding The Next Generation

Taking over from her father revealed generational differences both had to account for. He didn’t understand her time on LinkedIn, and she didn’t understand his hesitancy toward technology adoption. Ms. Wolter appreciates how hard it was to start the business over 40 years ago, and the wisdom her father has gained over the decades. At the same time, her father knows she’s the next generation and that her push for technology and efforts on LinkedIn will keep their business going. This acceptance of generational approaches is crucial to the industry’s recruitment.

If young millennials and Gen Z listen to social influencers, then to attract them to manufacturing, it makes sense to have influencers speaking on behalf of the industry. That time Ms. Wolter spends on LinkedIn is doing just that. With the latest big tech layoffs, she reminds those workers that manufacturing is ever-green, always evolving, and always hiring. The perception and representation that plague the number of women in manufacturing apply generationally too. It’s about using social media to counter common images associated with manufacturing and shows young people the realities of the industry, highlighting a diverse workforce and the variety of skills that can be applied.

Use social media to highlight a diverse workforce and the variety of skills needed in manufacturing.

The Impact of Networking

The impact of networking goes beyond social media. Ms. Wolter is a Board Member of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the American Gear Manufacturers Association (AGMA), plus Chair of the Technology & Manufacturing Association (TMA). Her work here helped her “find her people”. For anyone looking to grow, learn and lead in manufacturing—associations like this can help.

She joined the Young Leaders group at TMA early in her career and used their events and resources as often as possible. She now sends her team to these organizations for skills and training. She makes sure she takes her interns and younger employees to network events and tradeshows, going beyond the day-to-day and giving them a look at the industry’s impact at large. It’s this engagement both social and in-person that can change the next generation’s way of thinking about manufacturing.

What’s the Takeaway for Businesses Like Yours?

Now is a great time for women to enter manufacturing, but beyond the labor shortage, why should businesses hire more women? Ms. Wolter notes that women are multi-taskers and self-starters. Research shows that gender diversity boosts employee morale and retention. This diversity appeals to the next generation too—the more representation within your organization, the more it appeals to Gen Z’ers of any gender.

Recruiting starts with LinkedIn, using existing women and young people within your organization to highlight the work you do. Ms. Wolter reminds us that social media isn’t just for the young, and many of us are already on Facebook and Instagram, so why not post about your team and the work you do on LinkedIn? For women and young people looking to make waves in the industry, Ms. Wolter suggests reaching out to others on LinkedIn or utilizing associations—your people are out there and are willing to help you grow. Your businesses can take on this mentoring via online or through internships, offering industry insights and experience. In an industry looking for people, visibility and networking can be game changers.

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