Making a more diverse future for manufacturing

Women seen climbing metal stair in factory setting, each wearing a yellow high-vis jacket, with 'Women in Manufacturing' written on back.

In this SustMeme Guest Post on equality, diversity and inclusion, Lee Procter-Wright, Group Head of People Development at Encirc, explores how to break down the stereotypes of heavy industry and manufacturing. A more diverse industry is a more innovative and productive one; but it needs to show it’s one where everyone is welcome.

LP-W: Building an industry more representative of our society means getting over an image problem that heavy industry and manufacturing are only just beginning to both understand and tackle.

In the UK, manufacturing in particular is ingrained in our culture and history and comes with a host of equally ingrained stereotypes about who works in this industry. 

The effect of these stereotypes, that manufacturing is an environment for white, straight, cis, non-disabled men, is that people who don’t fall into that category don’t consider it a natural career path.

From this point on, the prophecy becomes self-fulfilling, as a lack of representation retroactively confirms the stereotypes that keep people out of the industry in the first place.

Breaking this cycle isn’t just about doing the right thing; the business case for having a diversity of thought and perspectives in the boardroom, on the factory floor and throughout the industry is clear.

Put simply, it will make us smarter, more innovative, and more creative.

If we keep the blinkers on, we will be left behind.

The good news is we’ve already made huge strides and the industry is more accessible than ever, but we still have so far to go. Equality, diversity, and inclusion need to remain a priority across the sector.

Lack of representation is a recruitment challenge

Female speaker presenting to staff in Encirc factory office, with another female colleague alongside, plus 'Collaboration' graphic on wall.

The lack of representation of women, LGBTQIA+ people, and those from minority ethnic groups is a challenge that goes deeper than just needing to see it, to be it.

Currently, just 26% of employees in manufacturing are women and only 13% are from minority ethnic groups. That makes joining the industry a far more difficult prospect, particularly for young people at the outset of their careers.

This is why we need to focus on uplifting underrepresented groups currently in our industry, but also working to make everyone an ally and an advocate for equality and diversity in manufacturing.

This ensures that those looking from the outside-in don’t see an unwilling majority pulled along by investor-relations-conscious executives.

Avoiding tokenism should be a perennial priority, and feeling like an exercise in box-ticking will quickly alienate new and prospective recruits. Instead, we need to give everyone who joins the industry the opportunity to be an advocate of a more inclusive sector — but only if they want to be (and we can’t assume that everyone from an underrepresented community will do so).

Active inclusion must be a natural part of manufacturing.

Some jobs within manufacturing and heavy industry can also pose specific physical challenges, with working conditions that are hot and labour-intensive. But these challenges aren’t an excuse to exclude people with disabilities from working in the industry.

In response, one of the main changes we’re making at Encirc is adapting our equipment to make physical roles more accessible for people with disabilities. 

Changing the game begins back in education

So, the industry is moving in the right direction; and it’s great to see companies celebrate amazing people breaking the mould across the sector.

However, it’s not just about how people arrive in the business. It’s also how they find themselves in our specific industry and how they find themselves in STEM fields altogether — and this means going right back into education spaces.

As an example of business engagement with education, Encirc is supporting sixth form girls across Northern Ireland with mentors from within the company as part of the SistersIN Leadership Programme and works with local schools and colleges across all of its sites.

Furthermore, Encirc’s Cheshire site has also been working closely with The Girls’ Network, offering professional mentoring for girls from underrepresented communities.

These initiatives should be a starting point for a larger intervention from the manufacturing industry into education focused on establishing opportunities for minority ethnic groups, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA+ individuals, who are even less represented in STEM fields. As of 2021, for example, just 4% of apprenticeships were being taken up by people from minority ethnic groups.

To achieve this wider, transformative intervention, leaders should look to those already in the industry, for both advice on bringing people in and on making work better when they arrive.

In this regard, and in line with company commitments to equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) in the workplace, Encirc recently introduced a Women in Manufacturing committee. In 2020, the committee agreed on a Women in Manufacturing Charter, which outlines measures to improve the representation of women within the business.

Charter provisions include for there being a minimum of three women on each shift, as well as ensuring that everyone who joins the business receives unconscious-bias training.

It is a support network for women, by women, but 2023 saw the committee open its doors to all people regardless of their gender identity, to ensure diversity of thought and promotion of allyship.

These changes are just the beginning, but it’s important that they’re shaped by the women already in the business and that they reach everyone.

Building the business case and making it happen

The business case for diversity is no secret.

It champions the importance of a diversity of thought that dispels ‘group think’, and allows issues to be examined from different perspectives. It also brings increased scope for innovation and creativity, and recognises the value of leaders seeing employees as individuals rather than a collective.

Voices that come from range of different experiences also bring new skillsets, new friendships, and new routines, which are welcome challenges to existing ways of working. 

This all makes for more dynamic, profitable, and sustainable businesses.

But it won’t just happen by osmosis, even if we increase diversity.

We not only need to get people into the sector, but also around the table when decisions are made, and into skilled trades where they can make an impact beyond improving a business’s EDI scores.

In 2021, women made up just 20% of skilled trade roles in manufacturing and 15% of middle-management roles, falling behind a still unimpressive global average of 27%.

Improving this situation, and its equivalents for other underrepresented groups, has to be a priority for the industry if it is to access this positive business case for diversity and make people feel that they are valued for their skills.

More equal representation across job roles was a major driver for the Women in Manufacturing charter that mandates representation on every shift. 

This also applies for people with disabilities, visible or otherwise. Encirc is currently undergoing a site review to establish how to update the working environment and ensure that the culture on the factory floor is somewhere that everyone feels safe. Most recently, this has meant investing in a team of more than 60 mental health first-aiders to support our teams, and make it clear that it’s okay to not be okay. 

Onwards and outwards

Manufacturing and heavy industry in general have so much to gain from a more inclusive culture and workforce, but it will take a concerted and imaginative effort to achieve real diversity.

Progress undoubtedly has been made in recent years, both in terms of uplifting those in the industry and building awareness of the need and business case for change. However, there is much further to go.

In the coming years, the most important product we’ll make is an industry for everyone. 

Portrait of Lee Procter-Wright, Group Head of People Development at Encirc.

Lee Procter-Wright is Group Head of People Development at Encirc. For over 15 years, he has worked in learning, organisational development, and leadership, in multiple sectors. Now, Lee is applying that knowledge gained to the manufacturing industry, to implement a new standard. His vision is to develop work-based cultures that foster inclusion, acceptance, and understanding. Encirc is a market leader in glass container design, manufacturing, bottling and logistics solutions for the UK, Irish and European food and beverages industries. With over 2,100 employees, it operates from four purpose-built sites in Northern Ireland, England and Italy. Part of the Vidrala group, the company produces more than four billion glass bottles and other containers a year.

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