Industry Market Trends

Viewpoint: Manufacturing Is Cool. Really.

Aug 06, 2014

In her first column for ThomasNet News, Karen Norheim of American Crane & Equipment tells her story of how she got into manufacturing and writes how professionals must come together to proactively solve the problems that could change the course U.S. manufacturing's future. This includes attracting more women to the business.

Manufacturing and related fields seem to have a bad rep... or a bad rap... or simply no reputation whatsoever. You know the dated, uncool stereotypes of mechanical engineers and manufacturing types: guys with the pocket protectors and tape holding their thick-rimmed glasses together.

This couldn't be further from the truth -- at least not the nerdy part. Unfortunately, the "guys" part is quite true. That's one reason - among many - that I decided to write this column. 

I'm not looking at the manufacturing business through thick-rimmed or rose-colored glasses. I'm looking at manufacturing from the perspective of where we are and where we need to be in order to remain viable in the global marketplace.

First, a little about me: I didn't choose to go into manufacturing. It chose me. To be more precise, my father asked me to work with him at his company, American Crane.

Although our company does exciting work as a leading manufacturer of cranes, hoists, and other material handling equipment, I didn't exactly join willingly. In fact, I went kicking and screaming. Why? I didn't think of manufacturing as a cool profession.

This has nothing to do with the fact that I'm a woman. I just didn't see manufacturing as a cool thing to do. Period.

Now that I'm living and breathing manufacturing, I think it's super-sexy. Seriously. And I decided I want to write regularly about it. I want to create a dialogue, foster discussion, and expand the possibilities for us.

That said, what are a few of my pet peeves about manufacturing? I'm not sharing them just to vent; I'm sharing them so that hopefully some of these issues will resonate with other manufacturing professionals, who will join me in working together to address - and solve - the problems plaguing us.

- There's a shortage of workers. This is not breaking news. More importantly, there's a dearth of younger workers. According to ThomasNet's Industry Market Barometer (IMB), an annual survey of buyers and sellers of products and services in the industrial market, three-quarters of manufacturers reported that 25 percent or less of their workforce is in the Generation Y (Millennial) age group.

- We need to educate those who make the grossly incorrect assumption that U.S. manufacturing is dead. Manufacturing accounted for about $1.9 trillion, or almost 12 percent, of the U.S. gross domestic product in 2012. I'll agree, though, that U.S. manufacturers can't be complacent. We need to work hard to remain competitive with other countries.

- The United States is falling behind in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). We need to stem the tide. It's up to all of us - parents, the educational community, and those of us in industry - to encourage the pursuit of manufacturing careers.

- Women are a minority in manufacturing. Yes, I saved the best worst for last. A 2013 study by the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte highlighted that while women represent nearly half (46.6 percent) of the total U.S. labor force, they only comprise a quarter (24.8 percent) of the durable goods manufacturing workforce, citing numbers by Catalyst Research. 

I'm tired of being the odd woman, and it's time to change this. One step in the right direction is the STEP Ahead initiative, sponsored by the Manufacturing Institute, in collaboration with Toyota, Deloitte, the Apollo Group, and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. The program focuses on research, leadership, and recognition of women in manufacturing.

So what can you do? For starters, share this column with your colleagues. Discuss these issues in your companies, at your industry association meetings, and with your vendors.

Don't get me wrong. It's not all negative, and there's plenty about manufacturing that I love. My decision to follow in my father's footsteps truly changed my life for the better. Actually, that is misleading. I call it charting my own course in the manufacturing world, and my father would agree.

My goal with this column is to bring the issues to light. I do not claim to have all the answers. Instead, I hope that all of us can collaborate and work toward resolutions. Are you with me?

Top photo credit: artur84 at


KAREN NORHEIMKaren Norheim is vice president of marketing and information technology at American Crane & Equipment Corp. Founded in 1972 and a privately held company with headquarters in Douglassville, Pa., American Crane is a leading manufacturer of cranes, hoists, and other material-handling equipment, as well as components and parts for standard, custom, and nuclear applications.