Rachel Yehle worked for three years as an intern at Industrial Controls Corp. while she earned an engineering degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
She interviewed for several jobs, at the urging of Industrial Controls president and Chief Executive Officer Don Lavrenz, after graduating in May before deciding to take a permanent position at the control panel manufacturer’s Sussex plant. It’s a move Yehle wanted to make all along.
There’s been a nationwide push to boost the number of women working in manufacturing. It has been a career path few chose in past generations, leading to a dearth of women in key roles in manufacturing today.
Industrial Controls may be an exception to the rule, of sorts, but it’s also a prime example of how a diverse workforce can be beneficial. Women make up about half of the 40-person staff at Industrial Controls. Many of them, like Yehle, work in jobs that are vitally important to the manufacturing process.
Lavrenz said the high percentage of female employees isn’t the result of a mandate to hire more women. For the company’s management, it’s merely about finding the best-qualified candidates, regardless of gender or race.
“It’s always been who’s the best fit for the job,” Lavrenz insisted. “Following that philosophy, it just so happens that about half of our employees are women. When I say best fit, there are a couple of things. Our environment, our culture, it really is a big deal. To have a group of people who all respect each other and work together, you get a very high level of performance when you get the right people.”
The company’s culture is emphasized with job candidates right from the start.
“When we interview people, we tell them that they must be very good at what they do and they must be part of our culture,” Lavrenz said. “Otherwise, you aren’t going to last very long here. It’s never come down to hiring a person because of their gender or race.”
Manufacturers that exclude women from key positions merely because of their gender, even if they are qualified to do the work, are doing a major disservice to their business, Lavrenz insisted.
“If you have amazing people doing great jobs, why would it not be in the best interest of the company to keep those people growing and, in turn, keep the company growing,” Lavrenz said.
Lavrenz wanted Yehle to be certain that she found the best fit for her burgeoning career before offering her a permanent job.
“I told her she was going to be a very in-demand employee,” Lavrenz said. “I’m honored that she wanted to work here, but for me to have a good feeling about this and to be sure she was going to be here long term, she needed to go out and see what else is available. I told her she could come back and talk to us if she went on every interview she thought she may be interested in. If she did that and was still interested in working here, I told her we’d love to have her.”
Lavrenz knew of the strong possibility of losing Yehle to another company, but he continued to insist that she explore other options.
“I told her she could go to a large company and have a lot of opportunity and probably make a lot more money,” he said. “I told her to take that into account.”
When Yehle ultimately decided that she wanted to work for Industrial Controls, it thrilled Lavrenz.
“That was a very proud moment for all of us,” he said. “I think what it really says is that we have a good environment and people really enjoy working here. As a company, we strive to be the best in the industry. A big part of doing that is having a great work environment.”
Since an early age, Yehle has envisioned herself as an engineer at a manufacturing plant. Today, she works as part of the computer-aided design and drafting team at Industrial Controls, which has focused on continuously improving its manufacturing operations through a partnership with the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership.
“I’ve wanted to be an engineer since I was in elementary school, so it never even crossed my mind that my gender would hold me back,” Yehle said. “I come here every day and I do my job. If something goes wrong I just keep my head up and keep on going.”
She enjoys the variety of work at Industrial Controls.
“I’m constantly learning and I get to work on a lot of different projects,” Yehle said. “Seeing a project go from my computer to paper to real-life and watching it get tested is very satisfying. It makes me like what I do.”
Yehle also appreciates working at a small manufacturer.
“I decided to come back because I like the small, family owned and operated business,” she said.
Yehle is one of several women who hold key positions at Industrial Controls, including shop supervisor Tammi Finley, who has been with the company for 15 years.
“I work with all of the people in the shop and make sure that everything is ready for shipping and that the jobs are ready to go,” Finley said. “I make sure it all flows until it goes out the door.”
During her tenure at Industrial Controls, Finley said she’s never been made to feel as she had to prove herself more because she’s a woman.
“Everybody gets a fair chance. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female,” Finley said. “With me, I know when I was first being considered for the shop supervisors job, the general manager at the time said: ‘I believe in you and I think you are going to do great.’”
Six years later, Finley continues to thrive in the role.
“It seems like we all work so well together. It’s very stressful at times but we lean on each other,” Finley said. “We are all friendly with each other. It’s a very welcoming place.”
Nikki Christman began working at Industrial Controls six years ago as receptionist. She later became an engineering coordinator before being promoted to her current role as account manager, where she serves as liaison between the customer and production personnel.
“I process all of the orders and I deal more with customers than probably anyone else here. I also work closely with engineers, purchasing and those on the shop floor,” Christman said. “Because I’m a female, I’ve never had anyone make me feel like I’m any less in my role. I’ve never felt that if a male was in my role he could do it better.”
Christman finds job satisfaction in being involved in various aspects of the production process.
“It’s pretty cool that you get to be a part of everything that ships out of here. We all have our hands in some part of it,” Christman said. “And if you work in the office and you want to know how a control panel is built, you are more than welcome to go out in the shop any time. You can watch or shadow somebody. I’ve even helped build some things. That’s kind of a cool opportunity and I don’t have any engineering education other than what I’ve learned here.”
Holli Sowinski is the purchasing manager for Industrial Controls. She joined the company a little over a year ago after spending 17 years at a local commercial dock door manufacturer, where she served as a materials manager.
Having a woman in the role of shop supervisor at Industrial Controls caught Sowinski’s attention.
“Where I came from, there were very few women,” Sowinski said. “The customer service managers were male. The production supervisors were male. Not that there were huge problems with that, but I didn’t always get invited to the golfing outings or when they went out on their boats and such. But when I came here and interviewed, I immediately saw there was going to be more diversity.”
Women continue to be bypassed for certain higher-level jobs with manufacturers in large part because of an outdated mind-set,” Sowinski insisted.
“There is still that mentality that women can’t do certain things,” she said. “Where I came from, there was a women who wanted a production supervisor position. A lot of people thought she was more qualified for it, but wasn’t given it because the people in charge had that mentality that because you are in a manufacturing environment you need a man to run the shop. Women are seen more like customer service employees, but not necessarily the customer service manager. I think that’s still a very prevalent attitude.”
Those attitudes often are difficult to change, she said.
“In my experience, there’s a certain age group of men that have worked in manufacturing who would never promote a woman to a plant supervisor role. I saw it in the suppliers, too. I don’t think in all these years that I ever dealt with a female supervisor,” Sowinski said. “Other companies wouldn’t have had women in these roles. Coming here to work with Tammi, Nikki and Rachel, it’s super encouraging.”
Yehle believes that many manufacturers are still getting used to the concept of women having careers in manufacturing, especially in supervisory roles.
“It’s like us having to prove ourselves,” she said. “The more you prove yourself, the more a company will take notice of what you are doing. Maybe not all companies, but companies like ours.”
Finley recalled recently finding a magnet that someone had given her when she first became shop supervisor.
“It says that sometimes the best man for a job is a woman,” Finley said, laughing.
The message appeared to sum up the feelings of the group.
Manufacturers need to continue to spread the word about viable careers in the industrial sector, for women, as well as men, Lavrenz said.
“I think the biggest thing is just getting the information out there,” Lavrenz said. “When women aren’t given opportunities in manufacturing, that’s horrible. You’ve got to get out, whether it’s to the high schools or whatever, and let people know what the opportunities are. Manufacturing is becoming a much more in-demand industry. There aren’t enough people to fill jobs in manufacturing and there are such great opportunities for great people.”