Mary Isbister and husband Eric run GenMet Corp., a mequon fabricating firm. But just who wears the pants?
A female president of a manufacturing company is uncommon. Do you think the glass ceiling has been broken, or at least cracked?
Personally, I have never had that problem. What surprises me is when I hand someone a business card – we don’t have titles on our business cards – they look at it and say, “What is your role in the business? Are you in HR or do you help out in the office?” In the Midwest, there is still a little bit of a provincial mindset about women’s roles. Do I think it exists in some places? Yes. Do I think it exists intentionally? Not always.
Hillary Clinton will likely be the Democratic candidate in the 2016 presidential election and could even become president. What would that do for women?
Hillary Clinton is a very smart woman. For the Democrats, she is a fantastic candidate, and if she decides to run, she will be difficult to beat. Not because she’s a woman but because she has good experience, and there are a lot of people she shares a common philosophy [with] about how to govern. She’s not of my political persuasion, so I will not vote for her. At the end of the day, gender, race and religion work themselves out when we learn to value each of those different aspects. I don’t think you can legislate it.
Gov. Scott Walker hasn’t come close to his promise of creating 250,000 new jobs. You’re the chair of the Governor’s Council on Workforce Investment. What can be done to create these jobs?
Is it actually a lack of jobs or a lack of people to fill the jobs that exist? We would hire more people today if I could find people with the skills I need. I could take 10 more welders tomorrow, but I can’t find them with the skill level. I think personally, there are many, many unfilled jobs. If they were filled with the right skill, I think we would get a heck of a lot closer to the 250,000.
What should be changed to address the so-called skills gap that you often refer to as one of the biggest challenges to manufacturing?
I don’t like the term gap; I think it’s mismatch. The pace of technology advancement is so quick that it is difficult to expect most educational institutions to stay up to speed with that much change. No. 2, we still have a tendency of not offering high school students the full gamut of opportunities. Technical education is just as rigorous, and in some cases more rigorous, as an accounting degree. Third, the manufacturing industry, for a lot of years, didn’t get involved enough with the education system. And the fourth leg of the stool then becomes the planning piece. My son just finished high school and only met with his guidance counselor once. How do these young people figure out what they want to be?
Do you think that pay, and the lack of public transportation to Mequon, has had an impact on the labor pool available to GenMet?
It’s not the pay…. Other manufacturers are talking about the wage escalations they are experiencing. It is very difficult for smaller companies, like ours, to compete for untrained people, when larger companies are paying $25 an hour. I really think there is a lack of quantity. There are not many people to hire. Transportation is a problem. Many times, we have talked about buying a 15-passenger van and getting people here ourselves, and frankly, I would not be surprised if that day does not come sooner than later. We’ve got to find another way and that might be the most economical way to do it.
Your son, Duncan, is one of GenMet’s 15 new hires this summer. Is he excited about it?
Actually, not so much. He worked here last summer. He likes fabricating and he is actually a pretty good welder. He likes the business and he loves the people, but he doesn’t want to be under Mom and Dad. No one cuts him any slack here.
What’s it like working with your husband, Eric, who’s the CEO of GenMet, every day?
There is nothing better than having a partner who you trust completely, who totally shares your same goals and who really gets it when you just need to bitch and complain and let it all out.
How do you juggle a work/life balance?
We are very conscientious with our son growing up, to focus on him at dinnertime. We try to have hobbies that keep us really engaged and allow us enough time away from the business so we were excited to get back to it. We sail, we bike, my husband is great woodworker. I garden like crazy. We have a full life.
Condensed and edited from a longer interview.