Leading by Example

5 questions with Toolcraft Machining President/CEO Kathy Pfannerstill

It is National Women’s History month, so we put five questions to our own Kathy Pfannerstill, President/CEO of Toolcraft Machining. It is unusual to find a female executive leading a company in the industry of manufacturing. We explore the path that led her here and her thoughts on how to draw and promote more women in the field of machining.

Tell us about your path to becoming the President/CEO of Toolcraft Machining.

I began my career in public accounting with a client base of manufacturing customers – experience that fit well with the industry where I ultimately found myself. I joined my father’s company in 2000 as a controller, when we were thrown a curveball. My father’s partner unexpectedly passed away only six months into my employment, which elevated me to a management role much more quickly than expected. My father had to spend more time on the machining floor, so I became an advisor to him on the business side of things. It was a pivotal decision in my career to decide to stay in manufacturing. The economy was struggling on the heels of 9/11. I had to really consider what it would mean for me to stay in this trade.

Fast forward to 2007 when I became president, with all the decision-making responsibility that the role requires – from making equipment purchases to hiring and managing operations. In 2014, I decided to buy the business so that I could start building on investment. Mine was a non-traditional path to leading a CNC machining company.

It is not typical to find a woman leading a manufacturing company.  Were there challenges along the way?

Yes, I felt pushback on two fronts. First, I had to overcome the “boss’s daughter” barrier. Once I proved I was smart enough to make good decisions, and demonstrated a proficient understanding of machining, that resistance was diminished. But I also needed to learn the language of machining, not only just to read mechanical blueprints and machining in general, but to communicate effectively in the tight-knit culture of the company.  

Overall, it can be both challenging and lonely for women in leadership positions, including the C-suite. Over the years, I have learned to find mentors outside my industry. I also had to develop a strategy for integrating into and working effectively within the manufacturing environment. This includes developing a “tough skin” while at the same time being true to oneself. 

Why is it important to you to draw more women into manufacturing jobs?

Women make up close to 50% of the workforce. Given the worker shortage projected for the future, manufacturing companies that embrace this workforce and cultivate environments where women can succeed, are going to have the labor they need to be successful. On the other hand, companies that do not change their culture will have a much harder time attracting and retaining this talent pool.

As for the women entering the workforce, a machining apprenticeship is a great way to start a career in manufacturing. Apprenticeship offers an easy entry into the field with great career potential. I would love to sponsor a female apprentice in machining. The WI Workforce Development and Apprenticeship Council is especially focused on integrating more women into manufacturing trades. Right now, fewer than 5% of machining apprenticeships are held by women.

Women have a great opportunity to start a career in machining. Many companies, including Toolcraft, sponsor apprenticeships which provide a low-cost alternative to pursuing a 4-year degree. During an apprenticeship, apprentices spend 1 day per week attending a technical school and the remaining 4 days are spent learning skills on the job. The employer covers your wages while in school and pays for tuition and books. Upon completion of an apprenticeship, apprentices do not have any school loans to pay off. In fact, many apprentices can purchase their first home with the wages earned during their apprenticeship.

What are some steps you have taken at Toolcraft Machining to support women in this industry?

I hire women for various positions within the company and train them up through the ranks. Empowering and challenging these women to stretch themselves, knowing they have a mentor who will help them along. I offer to reimburse tuition for those that need additional coursework related to their position and also encouraging them to join woman leadership groups such as Women in Manufacturing and Tempo.

As an active member on the Wisconsin Apprenticeship Council, I have in-depth knowledge of the workforce challenges we face in manufacturing. While we have seen increases in women in apprenticeships for construction trades (e.g., electricians, carpentry, etc.), the machining trade has not experienced that same success. I suspect one detractor is not having other women already in machining. We need that first group of pioneers to take this step, so that it is not so strange to think of going into it.

I am excited about the women-only manufacturing classes happening at some of our area high schools. These high schools give young women an opportunity to explore manufacturing opportunities without layering on the challenge of being the only female student in the room. It will take some time for those efforts to pay off, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Do you feel optimistic about the upcoming generation of women leaders in manufacturing?  

I think awareness has improved around the idea of women in manufacturing, but the culture of manufacturing desperately needs to change to attract more women. The biggest obstacle in making that shift is acknowledging that the environment is not always friendly to women. It needs to start at the executive level and be incorporated into training and evaluations. I feel this is necessary to ensure the existing workforce accepts, understands and embraces diversity in the workplace. The top needs to be consistent in leading with the right message and measuring people against that behavior. 

The good news is that a lot of the challenges can be resolved with training and awareness. In my company, we train on embracing diversity and calling out unacceptable behavior. Those that refuse to change are no longer with our company. My expectations are high when it comes to that kind of thing. The bottom line is that companies creating an environment where women can advance will be the ones that attract candidates from the female workforce.

If you are interested in learning more about apprenticeship opportunities visit dwd.wisconsin.gov/apprenticeship or contact Kathy directly at 262-250-7640.

To learn more about Toolcraft Machining, visit us at www.toolcraft.com