Manufacturing: Not just a man's job

September 4, 2012: 5:51 AM ET
Symbol Job Training
Symbol Job training, a trade school in Skokie Ill., hired April Senase (right), its first female instructor with the hope of inspiring more women to train for manufacturing jobs.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

April Senase is at the front end of a potential job boom: women in manufacturing.

Senase, 35, is a trailblazer. She has worked numerous factory jobs for 13 years -- often as the first, or only, woman on the production floor. She makes nearly $40 an hour, with overtime, in her day job running high-tech machinery at a factory that makes specialized industrial parts.

And in March, she took a second job as the first female instructor in computer-aided machining at Symbol Job Training Inc., a trade school that sits in the heart of a busy manufacturing hub in Skokie, Ill.

In her new role, she hopes to inspire more women to follow her lead.

According to the National Association of Manufacturers, about a third of all manufacturing workers today are women.

But manufacturing is rapidly being transformed from a labor-intensive field to a high-tech one. The change, and a nascent pick up in domestic manufacturing, has created thousands of factory jobs nationwide that, experts say, more women are starting to seek out.

"Women are very detailed-oriented," said Senase. "You need that approach in manufacturing today because the work is so much more precise."

Related: Hundreds of factory jobs go unfilled

Tom and Diana Peters -- the husband-wife team that runs Symbol Job Training -- are on a mission of their own. They want to enroll more women students in their school.

"The stereotype is that factory jobs require a lot of heavy lifting," said Diana. "It's the complete opposite. So much of manufacturing today is high-tech and computerized. Women can do these jobs and be very successful."

The Peters' trade school was formerly a family-run tool-and-die shop before Diana, a company executive, bought it and transformed it into a manufacturing trade school in 2005.

"We saw the need to establish a vocational school because of a skilled labor shortage in the area," she said.

Enrollment at Symbol, which specializes in teaching computer-aided machining, known as CNC, has since quadrupled to 140 students a year. The school recently moved to a larger facility.

Symbol currently has about a dozen female students, a level that Tom calls a "spike" from years past when the school had none.

Related: Manufacturing is my future

"Diana is already a role model for women students because it's rare to have a manufacturing school owned and operated by a woman," said Tom, director of business operations. And by hiring Senase, the Peters hope to further demystify the industry as a "boys' club."

Senase showed a knack for the trade early on. She took several shop classes in high school and started winning competitions.

"One of my instructors told me I was good in math and that I should consider going into CNC because the money's good," Senase said.

She won a scholarship, graduated from a vocational school and worked at several different companies where she quickly moved up the ranks.

Where the July job growth came from

Currently, Senase is a CNC specialist with Kitagawa-NorthTech in Schaumburg, Ill., earning $25 an hour. With overtime, because of a shortage of CNC workers, she's making up to $37.50 an hour.

And she teaches night classes at Symbol. Senase wants her students to come away ready to go on job interviews and present themselves as "fully-trained machinists, and not as a man or a woman."

Still, she doesn't sugarcoat her experience as a woman in a mostly male-dominated industry.

"Some guys have a hard time being instructed by a woman," she said. "They'd say to me, 'Why do you want to do this? You're going to get dirty.' "

Her response: "Yes, but at least I can afford to buy good soap."

Are you a woman working in manufacturing or training for a factory job? Or do you own a manufacturing company? If so, please email your story to parija.bhatnagar@turner.com.
Search for Jobs