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December 2017
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Career opportunities span genders

Someday, there won’t be a reason to write a story about women in material handling because there will be so many of them.

“I think that there will be a day when you won’t see an article like this,” said Shirley Perreira, president and chief executive officer of Watts Equipment Company. “The future will be filled with women in this industry and the memory of it being a male-dominated world will be a thing of the past. I think the best part of women in the business today is that we are not having to prove ourselves. The opportunities are just out there for the taking now.”

Men still outnumber women in material handling, but the numbers of women have increased since Perreira started. “I had a friend working here and when I took a summer break from college, she asked if I would take her parts runner job as she was moving to Texas to work for her father. I told her I could help out for a summer, but after that I would have to get a real job. I found the material handling business by accident and fell in love with it, and my customer base. It has been 26 years and I love coming to work every day and watching the next generation grow to love this business, too.”

In the beginning, she had to prove herself to some. “The guys I worked with were mostly great. Some of my customers challenged me to make sure I knew what I was doing. As time went on and I moved into different jobs, I was usually one of the only women in the room. I think it took everyone a bit to get used to a woman, and one that really wanted to be part of this business. And I wasn’t going away,” Perreira said.

“Today, it is amazing how many women are in this field, including outside sales. When I was out there, there were none. Believe me, a woman was rare and could get in to see most customers where the guys really had to figure a way past the gatekeeper.”

Material handling is well suited for either gender. “I don’t think male or female makes a difference. If they get into the business, they either love it or they don’t. The ones that do, you can’t stop.” College career fairs are good places to let women know material handling is a field to consider, Perreira said.

“Material handling isn’t typically a career a man or woman pursues, but instead lands through serendipity,” said Melinda Beckett-Maines, national marketing manager for Toyota Material Handling, USA. “Our industry needs a public relations campaign to create awareness about the vast careers available and the importance of material handling in all our lives.” Beckett-Maines was working in public relations for Toyota’s automotive side and handled the material handling side as well. “Later in my career, the opportunity to lead the company’s material handling marketing efforts opened up. I was the second woman ever promoted to this level within the material handling side of the business. The good news is, since then others have joined that list. It would be good to see more women in the field, but on a broader scale more women are now in supply chain careers.”

Balancing work and other responsibilities depends less on gender than the other roles people have, she said, such as being a parent, single parent, or caregiver for an elderly parent. “Responsibilities can land on anyone’s plate regardless of gender. However, an individual’s motivation can push people to try to do it all or pick and choose how much to put into each bucket of their life. Personally, I want to give my all at work, home and my community. I have two sons, and I hope my work ethic and career teaches them to see women as equal contributors in the world of work and to consider them equally for opportunity,” Beckett-Maines said.

Most women so far have found opportunity in material handling in offices. But Kris Marcotte found it in the warehouse. “I tell my daughter all the time, it doesn’t matter what you do for a living as long as you love it. You don’t need to make a million dollars. You need to be happy with life and what you’re doing every day,” Marcotte said. After taking a carpentry course and discovering she liked to work with her hands and build things, an instructor suggested a welding class. She did on-the-job training, but after a while felt burned out. “At that point, I hadn’t tried anything outside of welding,” so she took a certified nursing assistant class while working part-time as a production welder at Kardex Remstar. A full-time welding job was open and she took it. “I’m really glad that I took a time and did the CNA course because it made me realize how much I love what I’m doing,” Marcotte said.

She now works in inventory and production support.  “I love the assembly work I’m doing now at Kardex Remstar because I get to do a bit of everything, from welding to electronic testing. It’s never boring.”

Marcotte knew the workplace would be male-dominated. “That made me want to do it more and prove that I could do it just as well if not better. And I’ve found that I’m good at this. I like it and I’m good at it – two key ingredients to a successful career.”

Balancing work and life can be a struggle if women fill the typical gender roles of childcare, cooking, cleaning and laundry, she said. “I’ve learned you can’t do it all, and the best bet is to marry a supportive partner. And that’s what I did,” Marcotte said. “I do most of the laundry and cleaning, he takes care of the lawn and snow and we split the cooking. And in the end, it’s the time spent together as a family that’s important, not if the house is clean. It’s really easy to lose that family focus with the chaos of a work week, but we try hard to keep family time at the top.”

 With seven children, Nikki Lamb and her husband Aaron have to be a team at home and at work. Aaron invented Lift’n Buddy, a mobile lifting device, and Nikki is the company’s sales manager. “It is extremely important to work well as a team in both places, and it can be difficult to shut off the office mindset after hours,” she said. “When I started in the industry, I didn’t think about who I might be working with, besides people who were interested in ergonomics and worker safety,” Lamb said. With her belief in the product and her business and sales experience, “it was a natural fit to work together to build and grow the company. It wasn’t until I had been in the industry for a few years that I started to notice there weren’t many women around me.”

She doesn’t give it much thought day-to-day, she said, but at a meeting of about 60 people, someone pointed out that she was one of only two women. Material handling jobs can be done and can be rewarding for either gender, she said. “I think that it is fantastic that there is a greater value put on worker’s health and I provide a product that improves working conditions for years to come. I think the industry can attract women by positioning itself in that way.”

Kari Score also came to material handling through a family connection. Her father worked in material handling his entire career, and founded Dakota Storage Products in 1988. “I was pregnant with my son at the time, and I started out by ‘babysitting’ the phones so he could go out and call on potential customers. It was never my plan to stay. I fully intended to go back to being a veterinary technician at some point. But as time went on, I found I enjoyed what I was doing and enjoyed learning the ins and outs of the business. Then when my dad was ready to retire, we made a slow transition to me taking over the business.”

Score is now president and chief executive officer of Dakota Storage Products. “When I started, I knew next to nothing about the material handling world, so I would say it definitely surprised me and it was a bit strange at first spending eight to nine hours a day and never hearing from or seeing another woman. There are some, but it seems to be few and far between. It may be growing, but I would have to say it’s growing very slowly,” Score said.

Taking the mystery out of material handling by showing women what it is about and the opportunities it offers would help attract more women, Score said.

Mary Glindinning is a freelance writer who has worked at daily and weekly newspapers for more than 20 years. She lives in rural Shullsburg, Wis. E-mail to contact Mary.