Tracy Spear, Humble ManufacturingClick image to enlarge

Metal manufacturing faces a severe shortage of skilled labour. Women remain a largely untapped resource despite making up almost half of the Canadian labour force. How can we change that? Female leaders share their views on the challenges and opportunities of pursuing a career in metalworking in our new digital series, starting with Tracy Spear, owner and managing partner, Humble Manufacturing, Burnaby, B.C. based fabricator. Insights from more female industry leaders will be published in the coming weeks both online at www.shopmetaltech.com and in the June issue of Shop Metalworking Technology magazine.

Q. You didn’t have a background in metal manufacturing, what made you choose to purchase and run a metal fabricating shop?

SPEAR: Five years ago, when my husband Allan, and I purchased Humble Manufacturing, a custom metal fabrication facility in Burnaby B.C., Metal Fabrication was a new industry to us, but we knew it was something we could learn and apply our experience to. We both came from non-manufacturing industries; I came from finance and insurance and my husband came from software technology. We both were in sales management type roles, but always had the desire to buy our own business together. We just didn't see the opportunity in the businesses we were in at the time and were aware of Humble Manufacturing through an acquaintance. When it came up for sale, we saw the opportunity to be part of an established business with the potential for growth. 

Humble is a high precision parts fabricator with a team of experienced staff. High quality has been deeply rooted in the business for over 65 years, therefore we felt it was ideal for us.  

Leveraging our existing business experience in sales, management, and marketing we were confident we could gain a solid foundation in fabrication to take over Humble successfully and set out to expand the business.  In the last five years we are accomplishing the goals and haven’t looked back. 

Humble is a valuable supply chain partner to a vast number of customers and businesses in BC and throughout Canada and North America. It’s interesting that as a manufacturer people may think what we make is our only priority, however, we are actually a very service oriented business. Which marries well with the experience that Allan and I both bring to the business. Humble has always made high quality parts and when bringing on new customers it’s vital to ensure we are meeting and exceeding service expectations when we can.  In five years, we've done well growing this business and most recently as many companies are sourcing out local supply chains partners during the pandemic, it was our chance to show new customers the benefits of working with local partners such as Humble Manufacturing. Our team is passionate about what we do and that is evident by the quality of our parts and the loyalty of our customers. 

 

Q. Metal manufacturing, like most manufacturing, faces a shortage of skilled labor. Yet women make up more than 50% of the Canadian workforce overall. Why are there so few women in manufacturing? Is it because women don’t consider it an industry they want to work in or because the industry itself hasn’t made itself very welcoming?

SPEAR: Manufacturing has traditionally been male dominated but I am happy to see that is changing. It was eye opening when we bought our business and we learned that in its 65 years of business there had not been one woman on the shop floor in a full-time position for an extended period.  We knew we wanted to diversify our workforce and hire women, but we struggled to do so as there wasn't a large pool of women with manufacturing experience to choose from.  This stems from a variety of issues such as the outdated perception of the manufacturing industry to younger generations. Simply put, women aren't looking at manufacturing for a potential career. Further to that, the manufacturing industry needs to take ownership of these misconceptions and continue to evolve the overall culture and environment of the sector.

At Humble we hired an individual who had very limited manufacturing experience, and no direct sheet metal experience but she had the willingness to be trained and we were willing to invest in training her.  This experience was like my own, what she didn’t know, she could learn.  Since then, she worked her way up and has been with us for over two years and doing extremely well and taking on additional responsibilities. Just this past year, we were able to bring another individual on board who had excellent fabrication experience and she is now our afternoon shift Lead Hand. 

Our hiring strategy is to intentionally look for individuals who bring something unique to our business and today we are looking for women. We want individuals with skills and abilities we know will benefit our business long term. As an industry we need to understand that it’s critical we develop a diverse talent pool as diversity equals innovation. Business owners need to start taking action to diversify their workforces today. Our concern with labour shortages will only become greater in the years to come and I see women as the solution. Therefore, it's important that as business leaders we are consistently marketing the career pathways manufacturing has to offer to all career seekers, no matter their gender.

In my short tenure in manufacturing, I have learned the career offerings are extremely vast and many manufacturing jobs are unknown unless you have prior knowledge of the sector. It starts with education and teaching young children about the exciting careers in manufacturing and providing modern examples. High school is the perfect opportunity to help young people understand what modern-day manufacturing is as well as give hands-on experience through the variety of tech education and STEAM courses, career prep and work experience. I believe if we provide young people with firsthand knowledge of manufacturing they can accurately determine if this career path is right for them.

I recognize changing perceptions of manufacturing is ongoing however articles such as this keep the subject of diversity and inclusion top of mind, but we can’t stop there. We need to continually keep manufacturing careers at the forefront of conversations with career seekers, parents, and educators as well.

Q. What are the biggest barriers women face in trying to enter and thrive in this industry?

SPEAR:  From the on-boarding process to flexibility regarding work-life balance, a barrier I see ,is lack of support.  Once we have individuals on board, we need to provide support, ongoing training, and opportunity for advancement for women to stay in the industry. Businesses need to be prepared and open to change specifically regarding the physical environment of the workplace and the culture.

Here at Humble, for example, we had one women's bathroom and four men’s bathrooms. When our staff grew to five women out of a staff of twenty, this was something we had to change. Keep in mind such things also cost money therefore we need business leaders to be prepared for additional costs and have budget allocated.  In many instances businesses will need to be prepared to make facility changes such as bathrooms, changerooms and PPE.

Company culture could also pose a barrier. The introduction of women and increased diversity of any kind potentially requires education and training.  If you don’t know where to start, leverage the resources and tools available from industry organizations such as the CME which provide free training modules along with a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Tool Kit and the Leader Guidebook for Men.

Tracy Spear (left) with Gabriela Spinu, Lead Hand, and Empress Mark - Sheet Metal FabricatorClick image to enlarge

Q. For the young women either starting a manufacturing career or considering manufacturing as a career what advice would you give them?

SPEAR: Be curious. If a career or profession interests you, learn more about it.  Come try it out! For high school students, companies such as Humble offer work experience hours and we have had numerous students work in our facility over the last few years.

As the number of women in the industry is increasing, I would recommend surrounding yourself with mentors and allies to help you along your career journey.  If you can’t find an ally or mentor within your organization, look to the many industry organizations such as the CME, which is what I did. I enjoy having a community of people I can learn from. There are many online communities and non-profit organizations as well. I recommend We Build a Dream and BCCWITT to start with.

(www.cme-mec.cawww.bccwitt.ca  & www.webuildadream.com)

I am a huge believer in mentorships, formal or informal. They've led to a lot of success in my own career. Don’t be shy. There is nothing more flattering than having someone ask you to be their mentor. Keep in mind, it doesn’t have to be a formal mentorship. It could even be as simple as asking someone you respect for advice or ideas regarding your career. Or find a person in your field who you admire and emulate them. I have individuals who I admire and take learnings from on a regular basis.   

Q. How can men effectively champion women in manufacturing? 

SPEAR: What we need is allyship. To all the men out there listen up!  We need everyone to understand the benefits of a diverse workforce and to support women in manufacturing career paths.  Having men as our allies on our teams and through our career journeys is vital to the success and strength of our industry. If Canadian Manufacturing wants to compete on the world stage, how can we do that using only half of our population and half of our talent? It can’t. The time for Women in Manufacturing is now.

When women come onboard, giving the right support and ongoing training will provide the opportunity for greater overall success and advancement. Advancement is key to increase the knowledge and skill of women at all levels of our businesses and strengthens the sector overall.  Manufacturing is evolving and I am thrilled Humble Manufacturing can be part of the evolution.

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