One of the goals of The Manufacturing Institute, part of the National Association of Manufacturers, is to drive programs and research to promote manufacturing growth in the U.S.

Carolyn Lee, executive director of The Manufacturing Institute, grew up realizing the importance of manufacturing and how it could positively impact families. Lee’s father and grandfather owned a machine business, and later her father ran manufacturing operations at a different company.

Wanting to serve others, Lee studied public policy before moving to Washington, D.C., to work on policy issues. She joined The Manufacturing Institute about seven years ago, and things have come “full circle” for her since.

“I tell my kids all the time that what I do is help other people get good jobs so they can raise their families and have a good way of life,” she said. “That’s what manufacturing did for me as a kid, and I’m excited to be able to do this now.”

One way she has been able to accomplish this is through the STEP Ahead Awards. To help combat the gender gap in manufacturing, The Manufacturing Institute launched the STEP Ahead initiative in 2012. The STEP Ahead Awards highlight the achievements of real women in STEM careers who have demonstrated excellence and leadership in their companies and communities, on a national stage.

“The initiative came from research done about six years ago about the skills gap and how we don’t have enough people with the skills for the jobs we have,” Lee said. “One of the biggest gaps was only about 24 percent of workers in the sector were women. So, if [women] are 50 percent of the workforce but only 24 percent of manufacturing, if we are going to close the skills gap, we should start with the people that are there already but are not recognizing the opportunities for them in the sector.”

Since the inception of STEP Ahead, it has grown in popularity among women in manufacturing, and last year the institute received over 650 nominations to narrow down to 130 recognized honorees. Lee said the nomination process is thoughtful and elaborate. Nominees are recognized by peers and must demonstrate leadership; value brought to the sector, their role and also their community; and how they are paying it forward to the next generation of female workers.

Besides honoring 100 leaders, the awards initiative recognizes “30 under 30.” Lee said recognizing these energetic, budding leaders is critical: “The younger workers are great ambassadors to talk to the next generation,” she said.

The STEP Ahead initiative has made progress and produced success stories in its short life. The Manufacturing Institute recently conducted a study on how perception of women in the manufacturing workforce has changed. Where previously only 24 percent of the manufacturing workforce were women, the numbers grew to hit 29 percent.

But it’s more than just numbers.

“We have some great stories of women who came to the program and said, ‘I want to be more; I want to lead.’ And they went back and went on to bigger jobs in their company, and they pursued dreams they had that maybe they hadn’t been so willing to try before,” Lee said.

For Lee, if STEP Ahead can continue to expand and deepen relationships and engagement, then it is more than worth it. One such way to engage is through the Step Forward regional events, which provide an opportunity to network and keep the conversation moving forward.

“We found that [STEP Ahead] has reached over 300,000 individuals,” Lee said. “It’s really not just a congratulations; it’s to charge them to be the leaders of the future.”

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