MILWAUKEE — When Aleasha Hladilek realized her bachelor’s degree in anthropology wouldn’t get her a job, she returned to school to become an auto mechanic and a welder.

She graduated from the welding program at Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, in Superior, Wisconsin, and was hired by Northstar Aerospace in Duluth, Minn.

That led Hladilek to a teaching assistant job at the technical college while she also works as a welder for some local companies.

“I have never had a problem finding employment in welding,” said Hladilek, who has been in the field for about eight years.

Manufacturers are having trouble finding people in welding and other skilled trades as a wave of older workers retires and younger people aren’t stepping up to take their place. They say women represent manufacturing’s largest pool of untapped talent, but that it’s difficult to sell them on the careers.

Less than 10 percent of young women placed manufacturing among the top five occupations they felt offered the most opportunity for them, according to a recent survey from the organization Women in Manufacturing, and the consulting firm Plante Moran Inc.

Women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, but the number of females in manufacturing has been on the decline even as companies clamor for more talent in everything from blue-collar jobs to executive positions.

Across all manufacturing sectors in the U.S., women constitute only about 24 percent of the durable goods manufacturing workforce. The proportion of women in leadership roles in manufacturing companies also lags behind other U.S. industries, a report from Deloitte Consulting LLP and the Manufacturing Institute noted.

It’s a topic that business and civic leaders are just beginning to address, according to Deloitte.

“In the midst of the resurgence of manufacturing in the U.S., companies are facing a widely acknowledged talent shortage. Meanwhile, there’s one obvious source of human capital that the manufacturing industry has not fully tapped: women,” the Deloitte report noted.

‘I CAN DO IT ALL’

Wisconsin resident Jennifer Bannink is the type of woman manufacturers want for skilled-trades jobs. A machinist employed in product development for a medical-equipment company, she has a natural curiosity about how things work.

“The nice thing about my job is that I can do it all. I can dream something up, model it on the computer, and actually have it in my hands,” Bannink said.

“The worst thing you can do is break something. And then you learn that almost everything is fixable,” she added.

Bannink grew up on a dairy farm where she loved tinkering with engines. A tractor, she said, didn’t care whether you were male or female when it came to fixing it.

She left a four-year university after her freshman year and pursued various temporary jobs, eventually settling into metal fabrication work.

“I realized there was no happiness for me in a cubicle. I yearned to work behind a toolbox again,” Bannink said.

Her career trek wasn’t easy, though, as she suffered injuries, a layoff, and gender bias at manufacturers before she went back to school, also at Wisconsin Indianhead, for training that led to better employment in the field.

“I think a lot of the challenges made me a better machinist, a better person, and gave me tougher skin,” Bannink said.

PAINTING THE TOOLBOX PINK

She painted her old toolbox pink, to make a statement about women in the skilled trades, and she would encourage women to give manufacturing a try.

“I think a lot of young women believe, in order to be intelligent and a world-problem solver, you have to wear nylons and stilettos. I want them to know that there’s nothing wrong with rockin’ steel-toe boots. … You can be intelligent and be a builder, and in fact you have to be intelligent for this job,” Bannink said.

“You can change the world through manufacturing. A lot of the things that we do save lives,” she added about products from her employer, Phillips-Medisize Corp.

AT HARLEY-DAVIDSON

At a Harley-Davidson Inc. plant in suburban Milwaukee, Erin Spengler has worked in both machining and assembly. She was hired by Harley in 2001 after about four years of working at a machine shop and a metal fabrication shop where she gained technical skills but also experienced some gender bias.

“It was ultimately why I left my first job,” Spengler said about having to train a man for a position that she wanted but was not offered.

A motorcycle enthusiast, Spengler aspired to work at Harley-Davidson.

“Harley is really good about hiring women. I would like to see more women step up in manufacturing and not be held down at lower positions,” Spengler said.

Spengler, who has been a union steward, says she hasn’t personally felt any bias in her current job.

“I have always been treated with respect, but I am kind of an outspoken person, too. I think that has a lot to do with it,” she said.

About 25 percent of Harley-Davidson’s workforce is female.Harley works with local and national professional women organizations, attends career fairs and campus events specifically targeted to women, and leverages its Professional Women’s Business and Employee Resource Group to actively recruit other females in their social network, said Tony Macrito, manager of corporate media relations.

OUTDATED PERCEPTIONS

Manufacturers say one reason they have difficulties attracting female talent is that too many people have outdated, negative perceptions of the careers.

Today’s factories are more likely to be clean, bright, automated workplaces, compared with some dark, dirty plants of the past. It’s not all that way, and there’s nothing wrong with getting a little dirty when the job requires it, but overall the plants are better places to work, according to local companies.

“We need to be sure that we are branding manufacturing for what it is today, and not what it has been in the past,” said Rhonda Matschke, senior vice president of human resources at Generac Power Systems.

Nearly 30 percent of Generac’s 2,400 employees in Wisconsin are women, many of whom work in the plants that make generators.

One of them is Kristy Westenberg, who started at the company as an assembler in 2002 and now tests equipment before it’s shipped to customers.

Westenberg said she was the first female in her job, as an equipment tester, on the product line where she works. It was a way to move up the career ladder, she said.Generac encourages its employees to refer friends and family members for jobs, thus giving the company a wider talent pool to draw from.

Manufacturers ought to seek a diverse workforce that represents their community, so they don’t become stagnant in their thinking, said Eric Isbister, president of GenMet Corp.

GenMet makes a variety of products, from metal shelves to parts for the military. The company, with a female chief executive officer, Mary Isbister, has had trouble finding women in the skilled trades, despite intensive recruiting efforts for both males and females at schools and career fairs.There’s gender bias in many career fields, which is frustrating for both employers and employees.

Hladilek, from Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College, says she’s experienced some sexism at companies where she’s worked as an automotive mechanic or a welder.

“Some people have said things like ‘you don’t look like a welder,'” said Hladilek, who on her desk has a photograph from 1944 that depicts a group of women welders.

‘JUST A NORMAL THING’

Companies such as Briggs & Stratton Corp., of Milwaukee, have a history of men and women working alongside each other in the plants.

“It was just a normal thing at Briggs,” said Ross Winklbauer, a United Steelworkers subdistrict director who worked at the company years ago.

Some men felt that women couldn’t do certain jobs in the plant, but they were quickly proved wrong, Winklbauer said.