Culture crucial to recruitment and success of female techs

TechForce, an Arizona-based nonprofit dedicated to boosting the ranks of technicians in all industries, interviewed dozens of female automotive technicians in the spring. TechForce wanted to find out what challenges face women who fix cars for a living and how new-vehicle dealers, body shops and garages can do a better job recruiting and retaining female technicians. Just 2.5 percent of the technicians in the transportation industry are women, says Dana Rapoport, 55, who is in charge of diversity and inclusion for TechForce. She spoke with Staff Reporter Richard Truett. Here are edited excerpts.

Q: The TechForce report on female technicians working at new-car dealerships didn’t gloss over the negative experiences women often face. Were the interviews with female techs surprising?

A: So much of [female techs’] situation depended on how their employer set them up for success. We saw some employers that weren’t as welcoming and gracious. Then there were stores where gender didn’t make a difference. And in those stores, females were much more successful. What is surprising is that in this day and age, we are still dealing with that kind of generational thinking. The truth is a lot of women were working with men of a certain generation. The older the tech, the harder the relationship was to build. We still have some generational changes to go through before people look at female techs as the norm.

What made TechForce decide to look at the situation of female technicians?

We started to peel apart what was really going on with the work force shortage and started seeing the data. Less than 2.5 percent of the techs in all forms of transportation are women. That disparity is so large. Why is that? Are they not being welcomed? Can they not do the job? What’s going on? We wanted to find the 2.5 percent who are doing the job and hear their stories.

If you’ve ever been to a high school FIRST Robotics competition, you’ve seen how the female team members work so well and seamlessly with their male counterparts. Everyone is equal. Do you see anything in the future that will bring that mindset to new-vehicle dealers’ service departments?

As automotive technology evolves and we see everything coming into play — from hybrids to EVs to alternative fuel to self-driving cars — it’s almost as if the opportunity changes and opens up more for women. Because it is less about mechanics and more about solving technical problems.

Many of the ladies we interviewed said their favorite classes were electronics and EVs. They gravitated to that kind of problem-solving, where I think the men were more about the technical aspects of repair. The evolution is here, and many women don’t think of themselves as traditional technicians.

So you think the ranks of female technicians have the potential to grow as the internal combustion engine era winds down?

That’s a big part of it. There is a big comfort around working with computer codes and tracking down problems through a diagnostic computer system. The younger generation is more aligned with that kind of problem-solving. These ladies are so fearless that they just march ahead, even if they’ve had some adversity. You take all that tenacity and all that skill with computers and you have great potential for filling the tech shortage.

What can a new-vehicle dealer do to make working in the service department more appealing to female technicians?

Many of the women we talked to were the first female techs hired at their stores. And there were no changing rooms or locker rooms for women. So they’d use a public restroom or the dealer would retrofit an area. But it didn’t work because it set women apart. They don’t need to be set apart, just treated equally.

Dealers need to provide specific female uniforms, and there are even some specific tools made for smaller hands that the ladies talked about. Also, many employers allow pinup calendars in male techs’ workspaces. Women adapt themselves to those situations and take it in stride, but deep down inside they are thinking, “Can we leave that behind and just move on?” Women need to know they are safe and comfortable, and they need to know what to do if something happens. Can they speak up without fear of retribution? What mechanism has the dealer set up to help women in these situations?

It’s been well documented that female workers in many industries are paid less than their male counterparts for doing the exact same jobs. Is this also true for female technicians?

Many of the women we spoke with said they didn’t feel they were unfairly compensated. There were a few, of course, but what we heard was that their career trajectories were much slower than their male counterparts. They would come in to their new shop and they’d stay on the lube rack for a longer time than male techs. We heard that a fair amount.

Are dealers and automakers doing enough to educate potential female workers that a job in a dealership can be a rewarding career?

It’s getting better, and it is changing. But all employers need to be able to demonstrate in all they do that everyone is welcome, that women can see themselves in that imagery and know that they have a place there. A lot of dealers are recognizing that diversity is a strategy that can help their business.

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