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Jean Voorhees

Jean Voorhees, vice president for business development, WCCO Belting: Empowering women in manufacturing pays off

WAHPETON, N.D. – Attracting women to the manufacturing industry is critical due to the area’s shortage of skilled workers. As important, women add diversity and bring new perspectives to strategic thinking that can positively impact culture, efficiency and profitability.

At WCCO Belting, such slogans are more than just words. We have more women on our production floor than ever before. In fact, women make up 45 percent of our production team, compared to the national average of 29 percent.

Women operate equipment, run forklifts, package pallets and perform all other activities within our facility.

While targeting women wasn’t a planned approach for WCCO Belting, we saw significant improvements after we deliberately refocused on employee empowerment and engagement. Since 2012, WCCO Belting is producing 20 percent more product with 20 percent fewer employees. Here’s how it all came about.

  • Creating a work environment equally appealing to both men and women has been a longstanding priority of WCCO Belting. For example, we’ve learned how providing set shifts versus rotating shifts can greatly improve employees’ work-life balance  

Set shifts make it much easier for employees – especially single parents – to structure their personal lives and coordinate childcare.  

Making progressive strategic decisions such as this does put pressure on leadership to plan and to make concessions when necessary, but for us, the pros have far outweighed the cons. In 2012, WCCO Belting’s turnover rate was up to 75 percent. Between 2014 and 2018, that number was reduced to less than 3 percent.

  • Another key to success is driving gender bias out of the company. We make a conscious effort to promote gender-neutral job assignments. Men and women train side-by-side after they’re hired to show WCCO Belting’s belief in respect and equality. This also supports the assimilation of women into a manufacturing environment.

Critical to female empowerment is letting women’s voices be heard.  In workplaces that are predominantly male, it’s not uncommon for women to feel uncomfortable about sharing ideas. In fact, a report by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute states that 51 percent of women believe that the culture of the manufacturing industry is biased toward men.

A woman’s ability to creatively problem-solve can directly impact the bottom line, but it is the responsibility of her employer to encourage feedback and provide a receptive environment in which to submit ideas.  

Implementing a process-improvement program is a great step toward developing a diverse and involved workplace. An effective program will be driven from the top down and structured to succeed.

Since WCCO Belting launched its own program in 2014, more than 2,000 ideas have been submitted, and over half of them have been implemented.

Unlike a traditional process-improvement program (which uses cost-savings analyses to determine implementation), ours sees employees’ ideas get discussed on a weekly basis by a team of 20 production and non-production personnel. Not only does this show leadership’s trust in employees to make smart suggestions about their own activities, but also it lets new employees make an immediate impact.

  • About five years ago, WCCO Belting decided to prioritize training to improve product quality and cross-train employees. Since then, we’ve developed more than 50 internal training courses, and leadership continues to allocate resources to this area.

We also continue to use effective external resources such as emotional-intelligence training and diversity-and-inclusion training.

In response, employee engagement soared. These programs, combined with the uniqueness of our products and processes, give everyone the same opportunity to advance in their career.

If a person has the willingness to learn and the determination to be a productive employee, he or she will succeed at WCCO Belting.

  • Our founder had a remarkable ability to inspire and challenge people to be successful in roles they thought were outside of their capability.  Promoting professional growth is still a part of WCCO Belting’s culture today, and all employees are provided opportunities to grow and encouraged to pursue additional responsibilities.  

Today, two-thirds of our production supervisors are women.

If your business isn’t promoting manufacturing careers to women, you are discounting a large pool of talented candidates who could add significant value to your operation.  Diverse thinking and behavioral styles can shape your organization for the better and result in a considerable return on investment.

Jean Voorhees

Vice President Business Development

WCCO Belting, Inc.

Wahpeton, N.D.