DAVID KUSHMA

Lack of dealership techs raises question: Where are the women?

David Kushma is editor of Fixed Ops Journal.

A special report in this issue of Fixed Ops Journal examines the acute shortage of service and collision technicians to staff the shops of new-vehicle dealerships, now and in years to come. That shortage threatens dealer profitability — and it’s likely to get worse before it gets better.

The evidence is unrelenting. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a need for 46,000 more automotive techs by 2026, in addition to the 750,000 techs who now work across the auto industry (about 317,000 of them for franchised dealerships). About one of every four veteran dealership techs leaves each year.

Where the new and replacement techs will come from is unclear. The TechForce Foundation reports a big drop in enrollment in auto tech programs offered by for-profit trade schools. The consulting firm Carlisle & Co. warns of an imminent industrywide shortage of as many as 25,000 techs.

Tech vacancies that aren’t filled mean service work that doesn’t get done. That afflicts the service department’s — and the dealership’s — bottom line, big time.

More heartening is the industry’s response to the threat. We report that dealerships and dealership groups understand they’re not going to meet their needs merely by poaching techs from competitors. They’re growing and nurturing their own techs, often working with colleges, trade schools and high schools to identify and train tomorrow’s techs.

Automakers and suppliers are doing their part to broaden the pool of techs, providing scholarships, sponsoring apprenticeships, recruiting military veterans and setting up their own training programs. Industry groups, notably the National Automobile Dealers Association, are working aggressively to promote tech careers and centralize information about training opportunities.

All of these efforts are necessary, but they’re not sufficient. Every part of the industry must work even harder to close the tech gap.

Mind the gap

There’s no shortage of explanations for dealerships’ difficulty in hiring and keeping the techs they need: Long hours, including weekend shifts. The physical demands of the job.

Pay that often lags behind what talented techs can earn in other industries. The absence of mentors and a clear career path. A feeling that top management doesn’t care about them.

The reliance by most dealerships on flat-rate pay plans, which can disadvantage younger and less experienced techs. The high cost to many techs of paying for their own tools and certification.

More broadly, a growing disinterest in cars among young people, coupled with a decline in high school auto shop classes. A chronic disdain by parents and school counselors for students pursuing tech careers as an alternative to going to college.

But if you’re looking for a single factor that accounts for the tech shortage, you might find it in NADA’s latest Dealership Workforce Study: Barely 1 percent of service techs are women. If that percentage even began to approximate the overall participation of women in the U.S. labor force, there might not be a tech shortage at all.

How many reasons — or excuses — have you heard to explain the dearth of female techs? How many have you used?

Women don’t like getting their hands dirty. They don’t want to wreck their nails.

A woman wouldn’t fit in at our shop. She’d just be a distraction to the guys, especially if she’s good-looking.

Shops are noisy workplaces. The language in service bays can get rough. Our bathroom is, uh, pretty gross. Women don’t want to put up with that.

Persistent stereotypes

The industry can’t have it both ways. It’s worked hard and well to dispel the demeaning dismissal of service techs as “grease monkeys.” The job title “technician” has replaced the obsolete term “mechanic.”

Industry leaders routinely note that the job is increasingly high-tech and high-skill, ever less reliant on physically wrestling wrenches and more on mastering diagnostic skills and advanced electronic scanners. And they never tire of pointing out that the most talented and experienced techs earn six-figure salaries.

But too often, old, discredited stereotypes get trotted out to explain the absence, deliberate or otherwise, of women from service bays. The near-absolute gender gap among techs didn’t happen strictly by accident.

The better news in the NADA workforce study is that more women are working today as lube techs. Granted, it’s still only 2 percent of the total, but that’s twice as high as the overall rate of female techs. And granted, it’s the lowest rung on the career ladder, but today’s lube tech becomes tomorrow’s master tech.

Yet women are fewer than 1 percent of active dealership B techs, and 0.4 percent of the highest-level A techs. In other words, just one of every 250 A techs is a woman. That ratio has to change, soon, if the industry is to overcome its tech shortage.

Female industry leaders — master techs and other mentors and advocates  — tell us that when they visit high school auto shop classes (those that still exist), they often see almost as many girls enrolled as boys. The students don’t think twice about it.

The industry has to find better ways of supporting that enthusiasm and turning it into a long-term career choice. It’s the right thing to do, but even more, it’s a matter of economic self-interest.

Dave Kushma signature

 

You can reach David Kushma at dkushma@crain.com

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