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Automotive News - Fixed Ops Journal: Underrepresentation of women contributes to dealerships' tech shortage

Published Feb 20th 2020, 12:00am by Colleen R in Pressroom Press Releases

12/15/19  by Rick Popely

About half the customers who take their vehicles to franchised dealerships for service are women, but their odds of being greeted by a female service adviser are only 1 in 5. The chances that a female technician will work on their car or truck are far slimmer — a little better than 1 in 100.

Most dealers are scrambling just to find men to work as techs, let alone women. But they may be missing an opportunity by not proactively trying to recruit and retain more young women to replace older technicians who are retiring or moving to other jobs, industry experts say.

According to the National Automobile Dealers Association's 2019 Dealership Workforce Study, women hold 20 percent of service adviser jobs, up about a percentage point since 2016. Just 1.3 percent of technicians are women, a level that has increased only slightly in recent years.

The NADA study concludes that turnover also is higher among women service employees than among men. The lack of a welcoming environment for women at many dealerships is likely a root cause, says Jody DeVere, CEO of AskPatty.com, which trains dealerships, including service departments, to attract and sell to women customers.

"There is some hesitation on the part of dealerships to hire females because they feel, rightly so sometimes, that their culture isn't ready for that yet," DeVere told Fixed Ops Journal.

That can mean male employees will be indifferent or even hostile to women coming into territory that traditionally has been a man's domain. That is still hard for some men to deal with, says DeVere, a co-founder of the Women in Automotive advocacy group.

If a dealership's culture isn't ready to accept women, DeVere adds, then it needs to change.

"The owners, the dealer principal, and the managers need to want that," she says. "It cannot be driven from the bottom up. It is driven by the vision and decisions of the leadership, that they not only see the value but they have a plan. It can't be that if it doesn't work in 30 or 90 days, we aren't going to do it anymore."

Active recruiting

Some dealerships and dealership groups have succeeded at recruiting women as technicians and for other service department jobs. When the Toronto-based Pfaff Automotive Group launched a "grow your own" apprentice program six years ago, it made attracting women a priority, says Robert Morrison, fixed ops manager at Pfaff Porsche in Vaughan, Ontario.

About 5 percent of the company's techs and 10 percent of tech apprentices are women, the group says.

When Pfaff visits local high schools and colleges, the company actively recruits women to participate in co-op programs that enable students to split time between school and working as apprentices in its dealerships' service departments, Morrison says. The apprentice program is the group's main source of new techs, he adds.

Most of the group's larger dealerships now have at least one female technician, Morrison says. The shops have a "professional and welcoming" environment that accommodates women as well as men, he says

"You can't say you're engaged in [recruiting] women if you don't have the facilities for them," Morrison says.

"You can't have a changing room for the men and not have one for the women as well. You're paying lip service if you don't have a facility that shows a true commitment to being open to women."

Turnover among Pfaff's technicians is 6 percent a year, Morrison adds, well below the average for U.S. and Canadian dealerships.

Pfaff operates 17 dealerships in Ontario and British Columbia. About one-third of the company's service advisers are women, Morrison says.

Other dealerships have had similar success stories. Yet there is no large-scale, national push aimed at recruiting women to be dealership techs.

Instead, DeVere says, Women in Automotive is working with the Tech Force Foundation and other groups to recruit women on a local, personal level.

Adam Robinson is CEO of Hireology, which provides hiring software to more than 3,000 dealerships. He notes that most of today's workforce is under the age of 40, and that many younger employees want and expect to work in a diverse environment.

"What we see in today's employees, particularly Generation Z, is that they are much more likely to be interested in working for and staying with an employer who has a formal diversity, equity, and inclusion program in place," Robinson says.

Yet only a minority of dealerships have a defined policy on gender balance and related values, and even fewer have formal programs to achieve these goals, Robinson notes.

When Sherry Schultz joined Walser Automotive Group in Minneapolis last year as chief human resource officer, she found that fewer than 20 percent of the company's employees were women and that turnover was higher among women than men.

To create a more female-friendly culture, Schultz started Women of Walser, a resource and networking group that has spread throughout the company's 16 dealerships in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and nine in Wichita, Kan. The group developed a mentorship program to help newly hired employees settle into their jobs. Both initiatives include service employees.

"The automotive industry has historically been plagued with poor representation of women and higher turnover," Schultz says. "To attract and retain the best women in the organization, we needed to ensure there was a resource network to help women grow not only competence but confidence."

Women now account for 23 percent of Walser's employees, up from 20 percent a year ago, and turnover is down, Schultz says. A smaller share — 13 percent — of service advisers at Walser dealerships are women.

The company did not provide a number for service techs. "While our numbers do show an increase in the percentage of female technicians, it's small and probably not worth highlighting at this point," says Dayna Landgrebe, Walser's corporate communications manager.

Burden of history

Hireology's Robinson says the difficulty of recruiting female technicians is more of a societal issue than an industry one. For decades, he says, high school students — especially women — have been steered toward college instead of vocational jobs.

"Vocational roles are some of the best career opportunities for people who opt not to go to college," Robinson says. "It's a problem that more girls and young women aren't as interested in these roles.

"That impacts the auto industry in a huge way," he says. "I hesitate to say that's an issue that dealers themselves can address. We as an industry can plant a flag and say, 'Hey, look, this is a real opportunity for people who have a vocational aptitude or interest in developing one. You should check us out.' "

Service technicians typically need years of training and experience to become productive master techs. Service advisers are easier to find and train, and they don't need a mechanical background or thousands of dollars' worth of tools to get started. Because service customers are just as likely to be female as male, DeVere says, it is good business to have more women in customer-facing roles, such as advisers.

"People want to shop where they see people like themselves, and they also want to work in an environment where they see that happening," DeVere says.

Putting women in visible positions also signals to other women that they are welcome not only as customers but as potential employees, she adds.

"The unconscious message is, 'Wow, there are women working here. Maybe I can work at a dealership.' But if you see only men, that would never occur to you," she says.

Woman to woman

Roger Conant, a blogger who has worked as a customer experience and retention manager at dealerships in the Houston area, says he has urged dealers for more than 20 years to adopt female-friendly practices in fixed operations. He says it was obvious to him that many women felt more comfortable talking to another woman when they brought a car in for service.

"Eighty percent of them came in with a look of fear on their face," Conant says. "They were walking into a man cave."

Female advisers are often better listeners, he says, and tend to focus more on building long-term customer relationships than maximizing revenue from individual service transactions.

"In service, you're going to see those people over and over," Conant says. "The main thing you hire for is communication skill. [An adviser] will learn the technical part.

"A lot of times, you don't want people who have been steeped in this industry," he adds. "It's refreshing to have someone come in from a different industry that was really geared to relationships and to repeat business."

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