Women in Wrenching: How Can We Attract More Women to the Industry? A WrenchWay Roundtable

By Chasidy Rae Sisk

“How can the automotive and collision repair industries attract more women to these fields?” That’s the question Christen Battaglia, director of strategic partnerships at WrenchWay, posed during the organization’s “Women in Wrenching” roundtable on March 24th. Four female industry professionals shared their thoughts on this complex problem: Carolyn Coquillette, founder and CEO of Shop-Ware; Audra Fordin, owner of Great Bear Auto Repair and founder of Women Auto Know; Cheryl Thompson, founder and CEO of the Center for Automotive Diversity, Inclusion and Advancement (CADIA); and Brittany Parker, Master Subaru technician at Maple Hill Auto Group.

After introducing the panelists, Battaglia explained the reason for the roundtable: “We’re here to talk about the importance of being diverse and inclusive. Including women is important for all industry, but in automotive and collision, we have room for growth because our industry is a little behind some others. Studies have been conducted that show DEI is good for your business and your bottom line.”

Each woman shared her story of getting involved in the industry and discussed what it’s like to work in the industry as a woman. Battaglia shared, “My father was a car dealer in upstate New York, and every day, I’d get off the school bus and walk to the dealership, but I was never asked to go into the industry, though my brother and male cousins were. That was my first experience with the automotive industry, and ironically, I’m the only family member still in this industry!”

Coquillette began in a service bay before starting to wrench. Attending her local community college, she fell in love with the business and ultimately opened Luscious Garage, a shop specializing in hybrid cars, as well as a shop management software company, Shop-Ware. Although Coquillette has met “some phenomenal people, both men and women, in this industry, I’m hesitant to apply a pollyannaish lens to things. I’ve been fortunate, but I would never dismiss others’ experiences. If you’re having a hard time feeling like you belong, find a support system.”

“If you’re working with insensitive people, go somewhere else!” Coquillette added. “This is a great industry, and technicians are in high demand; there are tons of opportunities. Everywhere I’ve been, being a woman in this industry has provided an opportunity to stand out. It means people are paying more attention, but that can work to your advantage.”

A fourth-generation shop owner and the first female to owner her family’s business in Flushing, NY, Fordin began working in the shop with her father and grandfather when she was “old enough to hold power tools. When you’re in automotive, it’s in your blood. I’d noticed that customers were often angry and antagonistic, and in 2009, I realized they were scared and needed information about their cars; that’s when Women Auto Know was born to offer educational workshops. Being female was never difficult for me. I’ve found that people are willing to be helpful and teach you as long as you’re passionate about learning.”

Following high school graduation, Parker did not know what she wanted to do, but after trying a few jobs, she knew what she didn’t want to do! When she was younger, she had fixed bikes and worked on tractors, so she thought working on cars would be fun and went to school for it. “When I showed up to class, I was the only woman, and at first, it was intimidating, but they welcomed me; there was no opposition. I feel like my nervousness was a personal limitation because people have always been willing to help me in the shops and never seemed to think twice about me being a woman. I feel like I can do anything they can do.”

Parker continued, “I enjoyed my studies and set a goal of becoming master certified, and I’m now a Master Subaru Tech. Being able to achieve my personal goals has been fantastic, and I cannot imagine doing anything else!”

In the mid-1980s, Thompson was interested in computers, and after having her son, she got into the automotive industry “by accident. I was waitressing, and my dad, who was an engineer at Ford, helped me get a job in the executive dining room. At the time, Ford was trying to recruit women and minorities into the skilled trades, which gave me an opportunity for a tool and die apprenticeship – I learned so much and felt so powerful! In the early ‘90s, a superintendent told me he could help me pursue an engineering career. After spending 31 years at Ford, I retired as the leader of the powertrain prototype group, with a team of 500 reporting to me.”

Thompson founded ACADIA after she retired because “I’m very passionate about how to make this industry more inclusive and attract more women to automotive. I had one female tech and really saw a need to raise awareness and expose women to the opportunities in this industry. Technology advances so quickly that there’s always plenty to learn and tons of new opportunities.”

“Of course, I’ve encountered some bias occasionally, some conscious and some subtle, but most people want to help,” Thompson insisted. “I’d love to see more women and other minorities enter this industry and be successful! Besides lowering the intimidation level for female consumers, hiring women contributes to the trust factor and the ability to retain customers. There’s a huge business case for having more women in the industry, and research shows that DEI is profitable.”

Fordin agreed that “women are underrepresented” in the automotive industry, and she also pointed out another benefit to hiring women: “Female customers often feel more comfortable with women. It takes a lot of the intimidation factor out of the equation when they’re able to deal with women in a male-dominated field.”

Stating that her shop has largely been able to transcend bias because customers recognize their desire to help, Colliquette pointed out, “Most men don’t know any more about their vehicles than most women!”

When Thompson mentioned the need to increase visibility in underserved communities as well, the group spent a moment talking about the number of women of minority races in the industry. While Fordin currently has interns from Guyana, Venezuela and Korea, Thompson noted that inclusion of minority races varies depending on where a shop is located. “The more rural areas of the country probably are not going to have as much diversity. If we look at the U.S. Labor of Statistics reports, women comprise 23.6% of women in automotive but only 10% in service areas. Breaking that down by race and ethnicity, the numbers are lower for Black, Hispanic and Asian women. There’s not much racial diversity among the women in this industry.”

Colliquette suggested that the industry needs to focus on changing that as well. “We start by talking about it and working on it. Consider it when you’re doing marketing. Proactively promote young people and people of color into leadership groups and committees. Diversifying this industry will take a concerted effort on all parts!”

As the Women in Wrenching roundtable continued, panelists discussed the importance of mentoring and its impact on retention. Fordin has an intern program for young women, and she noted, “There’s always opportunities to mentor and conduct outreach. I find I’m mentoring all the time, and it’s very rewarding to watch these new industry professionals grow and become confident, plus it’s a spectacular way to give back. Whether it’s a man or a woman, we need more people in this industry; we’re always looking for new qualified help! If shops don’t mentor and train internally, they’re going to struggle.”

Next, Battaglia asked how the industry can engage women as apprentices and nurture the learning process. “We can’t expect everybody to fully understand how to do their job on the first day. Everybody needs apprenticeships to foster that learning environment,” she acknowledged.

Parker agreed that new technicians would feel more comfortable if they could rely on someone in the shop to help them understand. “Learning a skilled trade is difficult and takes years,” she admitted. “Without someone to look up to, a lot of new techs will be let down, lose confidence, and leave the industry. With someone to learn from, without being ridiculed or shamed, new techs won’t feel out of place and lost.”

Noting that a well-structured apprenticeship program is how she got her start in automotive, Thompson expressed, “I would never have gone into the field otherwise, but once I did, I got to work with various journeymen and see their styles, so I can look at all of them as mentors. Apprenticeships are a great way to attract more women.”

Pointing out that “historically, techs were the kids who weren’t very good students and had the option of entering the military or becoming a mechanic,” Colliquette stressed, “That’s certainly not the environment we have today! We work on extremely complicated technology, some of the most complex technology that people touch in their daily lives. We’re performing miracles on pretty much every car. Yet, culturally, people associated with automotive are not considered very smart or granted much appreciation. As we think about folks we’re trying to encourage, we need address them positively, letting them know that they’re smart, can learn, and should pursue automotive training because the job IS hard, but they’re capable.”

Talking about how the industry can attract more students, Battaglia observed, “Many students are now deciding on their career path while still in middle school. How do we encourage students to embrace the automotive industry at a younger age?”

Colliquette focused on the need to make the work environment more attractive by increasing diversity and ensuring that compensation is reflective of the skills needed for the job, while Thompson emphasized the value of educating parents who likely have an inaccurate view of the industry as “dangerous, dark and dingy.” Fordin agreed: “We need to change people’s perception about the industry. Lots of people don’t see the value of what we do because they’re just looking for a better rate. The entire ecosystem needs to change so people will realize, not only that cars are different, but also what these vehicles need and why.”

Continuing, Fordin explained how she attends elementary school career days to educate young students about automotive industry careers, plus she hosts workshops for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. “I also return to the schools to teach a workshop for high school students who are about to start driving to explain the things they need to know to be safe as a driver. I believe educated drivers promote this industry; when a man or woman open the hoods to jumpstart their battery, their child is watching that moment of personal satisfaction and feels like they can do that, too. That’s a great way to get kids interested at a really young age.”

Flexibility is another factor that could make the industry more palatable to women and men alike. According to Fordin, “I find myself to be flexible and take work-life balance into consideration because I want my team to be happy and to let them know that they can have a life and a career with a company that cares about them as a person. Flexibility is huge, and it’s all about communicating your needs and having the right company to respect and accommodate that.”

Thompson offered a slightly different perspective: “I’m not sure if offering flexible hours will help attract new employees, but it’ll certainly help with retention.”

Of course, there are many other factors impacting the industry’s attractiveness to prospective employees, including flat rate pay, benefits including maternity leave, and access to facilities; Parker noted, “I’ve never worked at a shop that had a ladies’ locker room.”

As the roundtable drew to a close, each panelist shared their take on what is fabulous about the automotive industry. Fordin said, “It’s always changing, and the people are fantastic,” and Thompson added, “Opportunity – there’s always something to learn with technology changing so fast, right in front of us, and it’s exciting!”

Colliquette added, “The fact that fixing vehicles is becoming more difficult is really just an opportunity for the professionals to step up and solve those problems. We perform a lot of meaningful service that no one else can. This is a great industry to lay down roots and build a career.”

Parker contributed, “I love my job and look forward to going to work every day!”

WrenchWay will host its next roundtable on April 21 at 7 p.m. CT, on the topic of “Managing Military Veterans in the Shop.” Registration is available here.

View the recording of the Women in Wrenching roundtable here, or learn more about WrenchWay here.

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