Q&A: What a Manufacturing Job Meant for this Mother of Two

March is Women’s History Month, a time to commemorate the important (and often overlooked) role that women have played in American history.

Women always have been a part of the manufacturing sector — hello, Rosie the Riveter! — but have faced big obstacles in achieving equality, both on the factory floor and in the boardroom.

Today, women make up a third of the manufacturing industry workforce, and can be found at every position, from entry level jobs to the CEO’s office. While women in manufacturing earn more compared to female workers in all industries, with median earnings of $35,158 to $30,348, they still trail men in manufacturing, who post earnings of $48,849.

Still, there’s no doubt that women have made some big strides over the decades. Field coordinator Debra Ackerman spent nearly three decades working at the original Rubbermaid factory in Wooster, Ohio. We chatted with her to learn more about her years in manufacturing and where she thinks women in the field are headed.

What made you seek out a job in manufacturing, and when and where was your first job?

My first job in manufacturing was in 1972. At the time, I had briefly attended college, and was working in behavior modification at a nearby state hospital. A lot of my friends were working in factories and had more money for buying things like nice cars. My best friend and several of my relatives worked at Rubbermaid, a local rubber and plastics factory. One day my friend took me for a brief tour and I decided I would turn in an application.  At the time they didn’t use a hiring agency and hired more by if you had family members employed there or you knew someone that could put in a recommendation for you. {media_1}

I got the job and really felt I was living the dream. We were always getting contract and cost of living raises. I bought a new car and was able to get an apartment. Life was good!! Since I was making “good” money, I put college on the back burner. People were coming to work in the factory after they got their college degree because they couldn’t find jobs in their field.

What was it like working there as a woman at the Rubbermaid factory in the 1970s?

When I first started at Rubbermaid, I remember, there were certain jobs that were for females and certain jobs that were only for men. Women did the packing and ran the machines. The men had the more skilled jobs and drove the electric lifts and tow motors. I think the number of pounds you had to be able to lift was one of the things that determined if a job was for a man or woman.

Eventually women started fighting for the higher paying jobs and put an end to gender qualifications. I worked a few years in shipping when there were very few women in the department. Sometimes loading heavy packages by hand into a semi-trailer was a challenge, but we figured it out.

Rubbermaid had mostly machines that were injection mold, but one department, was compression mold (CM). Most of the factory was clean but CM was different. There was a lot of powder floating around and running those machines was more physical than the injection mold machines. At the end of the shift I couldn’t run a comb through my hair and my hands would ache from tearing the excess material off the bath mats.

What did it mean for you to have that job?

It meant that I was able to provide my kids with things that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. When my kids were young I was either in a bad relationship or divorced. I wasn’t getting child support and was totally dependent on my income. Luckily, I was able to get overtime when I needed it. I could buy their sports equipment or whatever it was they needed or thought they needed.

We had good insurance. I could take them to the dentist, I could take them to the doctor. I never realized how privileged I was. I don’t think I appreciated my job until I no longer had my job, and I saw what it was like for women with children who were divorced trying to raise their kids. They had to work multiple jobs, where I could provide for my kids with one job and didn’t have to pay insurance premiums.

What are some of the best memories you have from working in manufacturing?

The best memories will always be about my coworkers. Having worked there for so long, we went through all the stages of life together.  You just built such a camaraderie with the people. Many retirees still get together for meals, community events, bus trips, and just to plain help each other deal with the onset of health issues and loneliness. 

Back in the day, we were proud to say we worked at Rubbermaid. We made a good product, had good benefits, and we were working for a company that started right in my hometown. There were lots of factories in Wooster years ago, but we thought ours was the best.

When you see Rubbermaid on the shelves now, does it make you happy or does it make you sad, knowing a lot of the production went overseas?

I can’t help but seeing Rubbermaid products and thinking about how much I miss the time I was in the factory. It’s sad that Rubbermaid is no longer in Wooster, where it all started. It is sad knowing that the product sitting on the shelf, wasn’t made by someone I know or by one of their kids. It’s even sadder knowing that the product sitting on the shelf, may have been made in China. How does that happen?  How does a factory that was once only in Wooster end up no longer in Wooster but in China. There are some facilities in the United States, it’s the “made in China” that really bugs me.

Since you left Rubbermaid and transitioned to your advocacy work here at AAM, is your sense that things are better for women in manufacturing? Worse? What sort of changes do you still think are needed?

I’m sure that changes still need to be made. But now, I think women can go into any area of manufacturing they want. Manufacturing has come a long way and some of the jobs need that college degree now, but there are plenty of jobs out there that need someone willing to show up and work hard. Kids can still get into manufacturing and make good money by going to a technical school and not be burdened by college loans. It doesn’t matter if they are male or female, they can aim for any job they want.

I went on a cruise recently and one of the highlights was meeting the captain of the ship, who is a woman.  She said it took her 19 years to become a captain. She just made up her mind she was going to do it.  She did all the training and got all the experience she needed and was the first American woman to be Captain of a vessel that size.