'Rosie the Riveter' is still an inspiration

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Janet Stephens, director of planning and initiatives, Essity Global Hygiene Supply Personal Care
Janet Stephens, director of planning and initiatives, Essity Global Hygiene Supply Personal Care

Earlier this spring, I had the honor of being named one of the National Manufacturing Institute's 130 STEP (Science, Technology, Engineering and Production) Ahead award recipients. In learning of the award, I was humbled and excited for the opportunity to participate in the Women in Manufacturing 2017 STEP Ahead Awards Ceremony in Washington, DC. I have worked in the adult incontinence products manufacturing industry for the last 30 years, and I have to say that the ceremony was by far one of the most meaningful and inspirational events I have ever attended.

Many moments stood out for me on this evening. They included the immense talent and vast experiences of all the women recipients who represented manufacturing companies across the country and spanned all industries; the cultural diversity represented; the family atmosphere and the fact that some awardees brought their children and parents. It was humbling to find myself among so many established women leaders in their fields as well as the many rising stars who represent our future.

But by far the highlight of the evening for me was the keynote speech given by Anna Hess. An energetic 89-year-old manufacturing veteran, Ms. Hess is known as the ‘real-life Rosie the Riveter.' You might recall that this Rosie was a fictitious cultural icon representing American women who worked in factories and shipyards during World War II.

75 years later and hands-on still rules the day

Ms. Hess's story was captivating. In 1942 at the young age (by today's standards) of 15, she began working for the war effort as a cutting machine operator, splicer and band builder at the Mohawk Rubber Company in Ohio. As many women did back then, she felt compelled to support her country and follow her mother's footsteps and those of many in her town. Ms. Hess worked hard at this job for three years, even though it was physically quite difficult for a young woman. But as Ms. Hess described it, she didn't give much thought to the idea that she was doing a ‘man's job.' Her focus was simply on doing her part to help America win the war!

I owe a great deal to Ms. Hess because, while she didn't realize it at the time, she paved the way for women like me to succeed in manufacturing.

Ms. Hess's message to us was clear - don't be afraid to use your hands. I completely agree with this. And, I've experienced the power of putting this to practice. In my early days working for SCA (now Essity) as a shift supervisor, there were many times that we were shorthanded or having machine issues, so I had to stack boxes or do housekeeping to help keep our productivity up.

I quickly saw that doing my job well depended on my willingness to get in there and be hands on. My eagerness to learn how things worked earned me credibility among my colleagues, and it also was a critical part of understanding at a deeper level how the operation actually worked.

Last but not least, it taught me about what a great feeling it was to be part of a team and accomplish our goals together. I realized that if you have the right people and the right environment, you can create a team that is a competitive advantage for the company and a great place for people to work.

Closing the skills gap by closing the gender gap

Most of us know “the sequel” to the Rosie the Riveter story — men returned from war, and women returned to their more traditional gender roles in the household. Manufacturing jobs shifted back to the men and to this day women remain the minority in manufacturing jobs at all levels in the U.S.

A recent survey from Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute found that six out of 10 open skilled production positions go unfilled due to the talent shortage. So, for me, it follows to reason that closing the manufacturing gender gap would also close the skills gap.

The increase in automation in manufacturing should help close both these gaps. Why? Because better technology and automation levels the playing field for all candidates. The bigger challenge today is creating awareness of this paradigm shift among young women in the job market.

Our GO! Program (graduate onboarding) is one way in which we accomplish that. GO! candidates spend 24 months at Essity, cycling through various roles that give them a range of experience including everything from finance, sales and marketing to engineering and IT. This process enables new talent to find the best fit for them and at the same time potentially secure a full-time job by the end of the program. 

I have always felt that women play a natural and crucial role in the long-term care industry.

Whether we've had experience caring for an aging parent or rearing children, women have a unique perspective and a nurturing nature to bring to their jobs. To be successful, leaders in manufacturing must have strong analytical skills, the ability to ask the right questions and be driven to learn as well as improve from the answers. If you couple these traits with compassion, you have a unique skill set that fits well with manufacturing for the long-term care industry.

At our Essity production facilities, we remind our team members that they could be making TENA for their mother, father or grandmother. We encourage them to think about the product from their loved one's perspective.

Using this as a reminder to help with quality always made “business sense” to me. But it wasn't until my own mother developed Alzheimer's disease that I fully appreciated the need for an emotional connection to our products. As my mother's illness progressed, I saw firsthand how important it was to preserve her dignity in the everyday aspects of life, which included ensuring that she could maintain some level of control when it came to bathroom needs and hygiene. Bringing this type of empathy into the work environment adds the human element to our jobs, and it is a talent at which women are especially proficient!

For these reasons and so many others, I applaud and support the growth of the Manufacturing Institute's STEP Ahead mission to mentor and recognize women in an effort to reduce the gender gap in the manufacturing industry. I think the first ‘step' to achieving this is to spread the word to women that success in a ‘hands-on' career is not only possibly but desirable. I encourage members of the long-term care community to identify women in the industry who deserve this recognition — in the end, it will help us all!

Janet Stephens is the director of planning and initiatives at Essity Global Hygiene Supply Personal Care in Bowling Green, KY. She can be reached at Janet.stephens@essity.com


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