Walk through any materials handling exhibition, and the trousers will outnumber the skirts by a significant margin. And that reflects the gender reality of the industry. But, it’s changing, as Allan Leibowitz reports.
Liz Richards, CEO of the US-based MHEDA industry group, notes that she is seeing more and more women attending the association’s educational conferences, conventions and regional networking summits.
“After noting a significant increase of women attending MHEDA’s annual Emerging Leaders Conference, the association began a Women in Industry initiative in 2015,” she says, explaining that it has culminated in the formation of a Women in Industry MHEDA-NET group to help formulate plans for future programming.
“In addition to helping to structure the overall initiative, they also discuss issues common to women and serve as a peer-to-peer networking group.”
Next on the agenda is a Women in Industry conference planned for 2017 as well as dedicated events for women at the next MHEDA Convention.
Richards sees women in a range of roles in materials handling, notably “marketing and HR but also in executive positions”.
One of those in an executive position is Els Thermote, CEO of TVH in the Americas. TVH is a leading global supplier of parts, founded in Belgium in 1969.
Thermote started in the forklift industry at an early age, working for her father and co-founder of TVH as a little girl in Belgium, sweeping floors and counting inventory. Over the years, the company expanded from a small, local company to a major international supplier. Thermote grew with the company, working her way up through the ranks through hard work and determination.
She was very involved in expanding the business internationally and in 2003 moved to the US to help establish the company’s American presence.
Becoming the CEO of TVH Americas was a natural progression for Thermote: “I always wanted to prove myself and was very fortunate to be given opportunities with increased levels of responsibility and authority,” she says.
Under her direction, the US business has grown from 200 staff at four distribution centres to over 800 at 11 locations.
“I believe that opportunities for women do exist in the forklift industry and that is especially true here at TVH. Currently, 35% of our employees in the Americas are women, and that number is expected to grow,” she says.
“Women have played a large role in TVH’s success and hold many different positions. From forklift driver and numerous warehouse positions to sales, marketing and executive positions, the roles women play in our industry are important and diverse.”
Randy Niekamp, vice president at Crown Equipment in the US, says his company actively recruits females.
“We are wrapping up our summer program now that included nearly 50 females working in 20 different departments throughout our corporate headquarters in New Bremen, Ohio, and in some of our US sales and service branch operations. The experiences covered all parts of the forklift journey, from design to engineering to technology to marketing to sales and service.
“We’ve found that nearly all of our interns – male or female – are pleasantly surprised by the creativity, challenge and complexity of our business. As we continue to grow our staff and future leaders, it remains important that we capitalise on this type of engagement early in a young professional’s career.
“We’ve seen the benefits first hand at Crown as former co-ops are now important contributors throughout our company,” he adds.
Women play an important part at leading European manufacturer Jungheinrich, where four of the 12 members of the Supervisory Board are female.
Press spokesman Martin Wielgus tells Forkliftaction News that “at nearly 20%, our women quota is above the average of 16.4% in the German mechanical engineering sector”.
At the first and second management levels, Jungheinrich has raised these ratios by 1.5 percentage points to 14.6%.
“Our goal is not to merely maintain the current women quota in management, but actually — over the medium term — to increase it as much as possible and retain female executives over the long term. In addition, we always try to win over new, highly qualified managers for the Jungheinrich organisation. We only recruit based on performance and hire the candidates who have the best qualifications for the position in question — independent of gender, age and ethnic background.”
Wielgus explains that it is not always possible to attract female candidates: “Although we explicitly include women in the target groups of our job wanted ads, they are not responded to by enough qualified female candidates.”
US manufacturer Cascade Corporation embraces all forms of diversity in the workplace, including gender diversity in manufacturing positions, which have tended to be male-dominated, according to spokeswoman Tamara Belgard.
“Several Cascade facilities employ women in a number of different manufacturing roles. Though only a small percentage of Cascade’s technical workforce is currently female, the company maintains that women add an important dimension to the workforce and culture of the company.”
Billie Jo Harris
Belgard tells Forkliftaction News that manufacturing has many desirable attributes that appeal to women. “It is not the stereotypical monotonous, heavy, dark, and dirty work of the past; rather it requires skill and finesse. Each day is varied and opportunities to learn, progress and thrive are limitless. Technical positions are challenging, rewarding, and with competitive compensation and excellent benefits; they present the same opportunities for women as they do for men.”
She concedes that there is considerable room for growth in creating a diverse employee base. “Cascade participates in a number of community events promoting the valued jobs in manufacturing, including job fairs and facility tours. They also offer internships and co-op opportunities to college students in an ongoing effort to attract talent to these positions. Last year, Cascade’s Guelph location expanded the women’s facilities to provide comparable changing areas to the men’s, which will allow for more female hires. They have also been working on improving the manufacturing plant to eliminate ergonomic hazards that better accommodate men’s and women’s varying physical strength.”
Women at work
Belgard cites a number of women performing technical roles at Cascade.
Billie Jo Harris has been working for Cascade in Springfield since 1996. She was hired as a welder, assembled single-doubles then moved to Manufacturing Services Support in 2014, where she contributes to various product lines daily.
Linda Sehen joined the parts depot in 2014 and Ashley Arnold was hired in 2007. Their positions involve picking and packing orders, and shipping forklift attachment parts and accessories internationally.
Cascade Guelph currently employs five women in the manufacturing plant including Lonnie O’Brien, who has worked for Cascade for over 30 years. She started at Cascade on a six-week contract to paint machines and clean up, and has been there ever since. Lonnie has worked a variety of positions in the plant including grinding, forklift driving, cutting fork tapers and flame cutting. She has been production welding for over 20 years with consistently excellent quality and high production numbers.
Sherri Sweitzer has been at Cascade for 11 years. She has worked the shotblast, polisher and as a line operator – taper cutting, grinding and bending.
Tara Dingwall has been with Cascade for over 10 years. She has worked as a line operator – taper cutting, grinding and bending, but has been a welder for the past five years.
Carrie Kilmer was hired at Cascade as a welder over four years ago. Her friendly, flexible attitude makes her a real asset.
Sophia Williams started her tenure at Cascade four years ago as a welder in the Mississauga plant before transferring to Guelph, which focuses on fork production. Williams has worked in welding, straightening, polishing, and tip milling and is currently training on taper cut.
TVH also has some notable working women at its American facilities.
Cathy Diaz has been with TVH since 1989 and is sales manager for the US. “When I first started at TVH, women weren’t as prominent in the industry,” she comments. “However, over time, I’ve seen more and more women enter into the industry and find success.”
Diaz is also involved in TVH’s mentor program which pairs employees interested in enhancing their personal and professional development with leaders of the organisation.
Jennifer White has been with TVH for 20 years and is the claims department manager. She manages a team that helps customers through the return process as well as processing any returns that are sent to TVH. White is also actively involved in helping to create a positive and rewarding company culture at TVH and is a mentor in TVH’s program.
“At TVH, we are a very customer-focused company and are always looking to put the needs and wants of our customers first. I think this has made it very easy for me to work alongside and deal with our predominately male customer base, because at the end of the day, it’s all about building relationships.”
Kim Deffenbaugh has been with TVH for seven years and is currently the operations administrative lead. She is responsible for all of the administration duties and special projects for the Olathe, KS facilities operations department, managers and staff.
“In the past several years, I’ve noticed more and more women who are interested in training and operating forklifts. When I first started at TVH, there were no women forklift drivers; now, we have several throughout the operations and inventory control departments. It’s great to see that there are more and more women taking on management and lead roles in the warehouse as well.”
Spotlight: Andrea Stach, TMHE
When Andrea Stach left school, she wanted to study mechanical engineering, just like her father and brother. However, her father thought it was not a job for women and suggested something related to the five languages she spoke at that time – like an interpreter at the EU.
Stach wisely ignored her father’s advice and instead took up a traineeship with Clark Materials Handling.
She is now the senior manager of territory management for Toyota Materials Handling Europe. She manages marketing and sales in dealerships in over 18 European countries, stretching from Ireland to Georgia – and is always the only woman at high-level meetings.
She seems somewhat bemused by the fact that more women don’t take up positions in the industry because she believes that women can bring a distinct set of feminine skills to materials handling. “I think women have emotional intelligence, adaptability, listening skills and a more sensitive evaluation of a situation than many men in sales and management,” says Stach.
The industry, however, is not for the fainthearted. Stach says that there are big personalities in the materials handling industry and a certain attitude that makes it difficult for women to find a place. Furthermore, she says, unlike other industries, there are no specific supports in place for women to help juggle career, children and home, even in the large materials handling firms. This tends to confine women to roles in HR and marketing which can be more time- and travel-flexible. Women have to be able to commit the time in this industry, especially in sales, and often they can’t, she says.
While Stach loves her job and regrets nothing from her over 25 years in the industry, she says it is difficult for women to advance to top level management, as she has done. It has taken hard work, adaptability, sacrifice and ongoing support from her family to reach the top and she says there is a very distinct glass ceiling for women in materials handling.
Toyota recently introduced a talent program and Stach was the first to put up her hand to mentor. “I want to coach people in dealer management – men and women. But I particularly want to encourage women to dare – to dare to believe they can reach for top management positions.
“I will move on someday and I would like to think that another woman would take my place,” she says.
Contributed by Melissa Barnett