Rockford Group Providing Career Pathways for Women in Manufacturing
Thu Mar 05

Rockford Group Providing Career Pathways for Women in Manufacturing

Women of Today’s Manufacturing is a Rockford-area organization providing career pathways for individuals pursuing STEM and manufacturing careers.

This continues our coverage of manufacturing workforce development in Illinois. Visit our earlier blogs on Illinois’ new apprenticeship legislation and our recent apprenticeship study.

Last month, I stumbled across an organization called Women of Today’s Manufacturing (WOTM). This group provides career pathways for women in manufacturing and scholarships to Rockford-area students pursuing careers in manufacturing and STEM fields. A few emails and LinkedIn messages later, I was on a video call with current president Jaclyn Kolodziej, former president Carrie Zethmayr, and Joie Vittetow, a WOTM member who’s also an engineering student at Northern Illinois University.

What was intended as an informational interview quickly developed into a fluid conversation on barriers to workplace diversity and what steps can be taken to get us closer to gender parity in manufacturing. Below is an excerpt of that conversation.

Can you tell us a bit about Women of Today’s Manufacturing? What do you do?
Carrie: We are a community-based organization that provides support to women in manufacturing. WOTM originated as part of a national organization but the two parted ways in the early aughts. There was a feeling that the national association was spending too much of its resources in DC, that it was becoming out of sync with the needs of the Rockford community. We became a standalone entity and restructured to focus on the needs of our local community.

Carrie Zethmayr and Jaclyn Kolodziej, women in manufacturing.
Carrie Zethmayr of Zethmayr LLC (left) and Jaclyn Kolodziej (right), the past and current presidents of Women of Today’s Manufacturing.

What are your current focuses?
Carrie: We recently re-centered around three strategic initiatives: providing educational programming to our members, scholarships, and building career pathways. We host educational programs to keep leaders and line workers in step with cutting edge trends in the industry and to help our members bring increased value to their employers. We provide scholarships to those seeking to develop their STEM skills. Our career pathways strategy is focused on making connections in the community to help students and under-employed women (and men) enter the manufacturing workforce.

That’s admirable. I also understand your scope goes beyond just supporting young women in manufacturing.
Carrie: That’s correct. In recent years we’ve expanded to include services for adults in career transition or those who are returning to the workforce after a long absence. To clarify, our scholarship program is two-fold; one scholarship is available only to girls, and the second is open to anyone pursuing manufacturing-related higher education. We expanded the offerings to address the needs of our community.

Illinois lawmakers passed a handful of bills last year tasked with strengthening apprenticeship programs across the state. We wrote about that on our blog last month. How can governments better support initiatives to get more women involved in manufacturing? Whose responsibility is it to make this happen?
Jaclyn: It’s great to hear that state legislators are paying more attention to this issue. What I’d suggest they keep in mind is that it’s important to include people who have boots on the ground. We see the issues first-hand and have the ability to give expert advice on what’s best for our communities. It’s been wonderful to see the level of support we’ve gotten from businesses and individuals right here in our community. We’d be grateful to have similar support from local government, as long as it’s informed.

Joie Vittetoe, woman engineer apprentice.
Joie Vittetow hard at work during her manufacturing apprenticeship. She is the only woman in her class at NIU’s engineering program.

Joie, what has your experience been working in environments that are so male-dominated?
Joie: It’s still a surprise–to most of the men I’ve met–to see a woman, especially a younger woman, in manufacturing. I’ve had guys question whether I’m just there for the money or worse, that I don’t actually know what I’m doing. Without talking to me, they don’t know how passionate I am about this work, or my history in this field. Thanks to my dad introducing me to manufacturing at a young age, I’ve been building things essentially since I was 5 years old. Their facial expressions usually change when they hear that. It means that often times, I have more experience than other men in the shop. Especially the ones around my age.

It has been hard to break into the boys’ club, though. I’m the only girl in my engineering class at NIU, so it can be hard to connect with my classmates. There was one instance where my professor had me come up to the front of the room to work out a problem no one else was able to solve. It was a great experience–despite the fact that I was in sweats that day–and some guys even came up to me afterwards so I could show them again. It was a wonderful chance to bond with my peers, but it seems like there is still some hesitancy for others in the class to interact with me.

Jaclyn: That’s a great point. Because women are so underrepresented in these roles, we need allies. We need other people who understand the value diversity brings to the shop floor. Sometimes that other person is a guy, sometimes it’s a woman who may be higher up in the company. We need others who will help us feel welcome. Getting a seat at the table is an amazing feat, but it can be even harder to have your voice heard once you’re there.

Manufacturers in Rockford, partnerships for tours and education.
WOTM builds partnerships with local manufacturers by organizing tours, sponsorships, and educational programming.

Joie, it sounds like you had years of hand-on experience in manufacturing before you ever stared a training course or entered a classroom. Would you say that’s common?

Joie: Not at all. In fact, that’s one issue I’d take with STEM education today. So much of it is theoretical or math based. Those things are obviously very important, but you need the physical, hands on experience of actually putting things together and seeing how they work. That completes the picture.

Jaclyn: So many people are entering the workforce without that real-life experience. It’s one of the reasons we partner with manufacturers in the area and organize tours. We’ve been a longstanding supporter of FIRST Robotics teams as well. One of our recent accomplishments was investing over $8,000 to support five Rockford-area teams. Early exposure to this field is key. 

So, Joie, what are your plans for down the road? How has WOTM played a role in your career development?

I’m currently pursuing my BA in mechanical engineering. After that, I hope to complete an MA in aerospace engineering and have a career designing planes. I want to achieve these goals not just for myself, but to bring other women up with me as well. WOTM opened my eyes to the importance of advocating for women in manufacturing, and I plan to stay involved. Later down the line, I hope to be in a position to inspire other girls to consider careers in manufacturing. It’s a wonderful world to be in.

Organizations like these are critical in the push to assure that there is a qualified manufacturing workforce for tomorrow. That means challenging shop owners to recruit in non-traditional ways to find nontraditional candidates. That means introducing youth to this career path at an early age. It also means making sure community associations like WOTM have the necessary resources to ensure women are represented in manufacturing. The responsibility doesn’t fall to any one party–it’s on all of us.

Interested in subscribing to WOTM’s newsletter? Send an email to Jaclyn at For additional updates, visit their site and follow them on LinkedIn and Facebook.

Author: Tyler Myles, Marketing Associate

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