Participation paving the way for diversity

Image: Atlas Copco

The challenges of diversifying the manufacturing workforce, and filling its skill gaps, could share a solution.

Increasing participation of women in the manufacturing workforce is greater than any one company. Indeed, sector-wide surveys have found that the participation of women in manufacturing is small but growing.

In an April 2019 report from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, an Australian federal government agency, female representation in the occupations of craft and related trades workers was the lowest in the economy, with plant and machine operators, and assemblers, the second lowest – two occupations in high demand in manufacturing.

Manufacturing as a whole performed slightly better, with 29.5 per cent of the workforce women, a 3.6-point increase on 1998 figures.

At the same time, these occupations are some of the most in-demand occupations across the economy as a whole. In 2018, the Ai Group found that the occupation that employers found most difficult to fill are technicians and trades workers, along with other occupations requiring STEM skills.

Encouraging the greater participation of women in the workforce, and highlighting the demand for workers in these fields, confronts a key issue facing the Australian workforce and the manufacturing sector. In addition, diversifying the manufacturing workforce will prepare the industry for the changes that are forecasted to occur with the adoption of the next wave of technological innovation.

One company that is contributing to these figures is Atlas Copco Australia, a subsidiary of the global air compressor manufacturer Atlas Copco. According to Geoff Gavan, the company’s HR business partner, Atlas Copco targets a diverse workforce, while only hiring the best possible person for the vacant position.

“In Australia, we have a figure that we have to recruit for, in particular we are looking for female engineers and female service technicians.”

Gavan admitted that the company is facing the same pressures as the rest of the industry, but has had its successes, too.

“We have just hired a female mechanical engineer and, going forward, we would like to be able to continue to be doing that,” said Gavan.

What made this candidate stand out, however, was not her gender, but the experience and knowledge she could bring to the company. Gavan hopes that this hire will enable other to follow.

“When we saw her application, we thought ‘Wow, here’s an opportunity to break the mould’, because it’s not easy to find female engineers with that level of experience.”

To meet their targets, Atlas Copco has one advantage that not every Australian manufacturer may have.

“Atlas Copco operates in more than 180 countries. We have more than 35,000 employees.  It’s a large, global business and wherever possible we try to move people around to give them experience, and also to broaden the depth of diversity in the business,” said Gavan.

This has seen engineers and other employees move from international divisions to Atlas Copco’s operations in Australia, some of whom have put down roots.

“We have two people here who are now permanent residents, both women in management roles, who have come from other parts of Atlas Copco in the world,” said Gavan. “We are more than happy to participate in that program where we can, and if the opportunity arose for more, we certainly would do that.”

As a global business, the success of women in each part of Atlas Copco’s business contributes to the company’s overall strategy, which identifies diversity as a goal of the company. As Gavan outlined, Australia has a part to play in that strategy.

“We are the biggest compressor business in the world, so globally we have the challenge of living up to that diversity target. We have some local input to what is achievable here and what is not achievable,” said Gavan.

In getting to these targets, the company acknowledges that those areas it is hiring towards have some of the lowest numbers of women participating.

“It’s hard to get women interested in swinging spanners and doing engineering design work, but they’re out there and we will eventually find them,” said Gavan.

To do so, the company has developed relationships with universities, including the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), to provide internships and placements so that the dynamism of manufacturing can be highlighted and perceptions of the manufacturing sector as dirty, dull, and dangerous can be alleviated.

“We’ve got one person here, a full-time employee, who started out as an intern and she’s now doing our web presence,” said Gavan.

“We were very pleased to bring her from an intern, to a part time employee while she studied, and now she’s a full-time employee, having finished her studies.”

Putting these achievements and strands together into one package is Atlas Copco’s sponsorship of the Women in Industry Awards, which the company includes on each of its job applications as a sign of its commitment to diversity in the workforce.

In 2020, the company will return for a fourth year as a sponsor.