At this manufacturing company, women rule the factory floor

These eyeglasses are unusual— they're made in the US
These eyeglasses are unusual— they're made in the US

Carey Manufacturing makes pedestrian products -- the same handles and latches it's turned out for 40 years.

But it's making a name for itself these days because of an unusual distinction.

Almost half its workers are women, and women outnumber men on the factory floor.

Millie Ramirez, 23, is one of them. She was hired as an intern in 2015 and worked her way up to production supervisor. She handles two of the biggest machines in the plant.

After moving to Connecticut, she graduated as a top student from her high school's four-year manufacturing program and then a community college advanced manufacturing course.

But she struggled to get hired. She interviewed with at least five other manufacturers for a machinist position. At one firm, she says, she was told she wasn't the right fit because she probably couldn't lift more than 25 pounds.

carey millie
Millie Ramirez, 23, is one of the top production supervisors at Carey Manufacturing.

She carries much more at Carey, whose clients range from military to auto and aerospace firms. But mostly she's programming and steering machines in her typical 10-to-12-hour workday.

"Advanced manufacturing is about using technology and not so much physical work," she said. "I love seeing a product come to life."

Although manufacturing today is driven by technology more than physical labor, the industry is still heavily male. According to the Labor Department, women make up about 30% of workers, and that's up from 27% in 2002.

Related: An Indian technologist creating factory jobs in America

Allison Grealis, president of the advocacy group Women in Manufacturing, said Carey sets a good example of the change the industry needs.

"I would hope their model isn't an anomaly but becomes the norm," she said. "With manufacturing's skills gap, you can't only look at 50% of the population to fill it. Women have got to be recruited in every role."

At Carey, seven of the nine women on the floor were hired in the past four years. They operate machines, assemble products and inspect products for quality.

carey manufacturing
Millie Ramirez and Patricia Cancho are two of nine women handling production at Carey Manufacturing in Hartford, Conn.

Pete Egan, the human resources manager, says he didn't strive for gender parity: "I'd like to take credit for it, but it kind of just happened."

As word spread "that we give everyone a fair shot," Egan said Carey earned a reputation of embracing women workers.

The manufacturing industry is struggling with high demand for skilled workers and not enough supply. Egan frequently checks in with local technical schools and area community colleges to nab their best manufacturing graduates.

carey hardware
Carey Manufacturing specalizes in making catches, handles and latches.

Trade schools and colleges, like A.I. Prince Technical High School in Hartford, where Ramirez was a student, are enrolling more women in manufacturing courses.

The male-female ratio has been about 50-50 the past four years, said Jim Clarke, head of Prince Tech's automated manufacturing program. Clarke said he's noticed that women in the program are particularly intrigued by the technical aspects of manufacturing.

Said Grealis, "Manufacturers are realizing diversity in the workforce is important. Change won't happen overnight, but it is happening."

Related: The factory where prisoners get a second chance

Patricia Cancho, 21, was hired a year ago at Carey. She inspects products for quality and oversees operations worksheets. It's her first manufacturing job. She's also pursuing an associate degree in manufacturing from a community college.

"Before, people believed these jobs were only for guys. My generation looks at the world differently. Both women and men are capable of factory jobs," she said.

carey patricia
Patricia Cancho is in quality inspection at Carey Manufacturing. She was honored as an exemplary student in her manufacturing program in college.

Ramirez and Cancho are committed to inspiring peers to give manufacturing a shot. Ramirez is setting an example in her own family: One younger sister and two cousins are enrolled in Prince Tech's manufacturing program.

Related: This Michigan toymaker pledged never to go to China

"My daughter is only 5," Ramirez said. "But if she wants to follow in my footsteps one day, I will support her."

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