Auto Service World
News   April 23, 2024   by Emily Atkins

From the Magazine: Room for growth

While the number of women working in auto repair circles is growing, improvements can still be made to make it more appealing. Hear from women in the trade — from shop owners to techs — who talk about the stigma, what’s changed and how they’re helping promote women in the industry

From master technicians to shop owners, parts suppliers to educators, the role of women in the automotive industry has changed dramatically since the turn of the century.

In a traditionally male-dominated field, women are carving out space in ways that help the whole sector grow.

On the heels of International Women’s Day, CARS magazine got in touch with a number of women in the sector to assess how they see the industry adapting.

Nhu Nguyen is a Porsche Classic technician at Pfaff Tuning in Toronto. After a decade in other sectors, Nguyen decided to follow her passion and jump into automotive work in her 30s.

“When I was in high school I just fell in love with driving,” she explained. “And I spent a lot of time with my friends who were into cars and I wanted to learn.”

That blossomed into an enthusiasm that stuck with her even as her life took other turns. “So I asked all the questions and I hung out at garages … but I didn’t get into the trade until 12 years later when I was 30.”

A career as a technician wasn’t something that seemed realistic to her younger self.

“I didn’t fathom where I could take this, you know? I would enjoy tinkering — taking things apart and putting them back together,” Nguyen said. “But I didn’t imagine that I would get to the level that I’m at now to be able to do the work that I do now.”

After a year-and-a-half in the Porsche Classic technician training program, Nguyen joined the Porsche dealership and has been there ever since. She was the only female student in the first North American class Porsche held.

She says the industry has been extremely welcoming and credits the inherent diversity in the industry.

“The car community in itself is very exciting,” Nguyen said. “There are so many different aspects to the car community — different brands, different types and styles of driving. And then there’s the Porsche community.

“It’s this small but very large global community that’s very tight knit sometimes and others at odds with each other. I appreciate them all. And they’ve been incredibly welcoming to this girl who thought that she could join in on the fun. They’ve just been incredibly welcoming to me and my career so far.”

“The responsibility lies with us as shop owners to create environments that attract and retain women.”

Nguyen uses social media to normalize women in the trades. She can regularly be seen promoting other women working in automotive repair. It’s something that happened almost by accident.

“I enjoy what I do so much, and I think there’s so much beauty in what I do,” she said. “So I started out just posting pictures of parts that I thought were cool or interesting. It’s now growing into a platform where I encourage people to follow their dreams and inspire people.”

That’s an important role when you consider the current shortage of staff in the sector, something Nguyen says women can help with.

“We are 50 per cent of the workforce,” she observed. “If you’re only looking at the other 50 per cent of the population to fill these roles, you’re going to have a shortage.”

Nhu Nguyen, a Porsche Classic technician, works on a vehicle at Pfaff Tuning in Toronto.

In school, working as a mechanic was not considered an option, Nguyen recalled.

“I had shop class, but it was kind of informational. It wasn’t a career choice. We were all guided towards university and these other white-collar jobs,” she said.

“I think that there’s been a shift. But women as 50 per cent of the population and of the workforce, we can definitely help fill that void.”

Josie Candito agreed with Nguyen. Candito is the owner of Master Mechanic High Park, in Toronto’s west end. She’s been with Master Mechanic since 1992, originally as an accountant in its head office, and as a franchise owner since 1999. Her shop was recognized as the CARS Shop of the Year Award winner in 2021.

“By actively involving women, the industry can significantly contribute to closing the [staffing] gap,” Candito says.

As a female shop owner, Candito has provided a sort of hub for young women interested in the automotive business around Toronto. “Young co-op students kind of ask us first, so we’ve gone through many here,” she said. “It’s incredible to have started their career as a service technician and it’s nice to see them grow and develop and choose that career.”

As for how other automotive entrepreneurs can help encourage more women into the industry, Candito says it all starts with the working environment.

“The responsibility lies with us as shop owners to create environments that attract and retain women,” she explained. “If more people, including women, came to the roles it would be a very good thing to solve the staff shortage.”

“My big message is that skilled trade is about skill. I don’t care what body parts you have. I don’t care what you identify as. I really don’t care. Can you fix this car? Yes or no?”

Meanwhile, at Auto Niche in Markham, Ontario, shop owner and technician Emily Chung is taking a multi-faceted approach to increasing participation in the trades. She’s also an educator at Centennial College, where she helps foster new talent in the automotive front lines.

Like Nguyen and Candito, Chung came to the automotive world later in life. After working in her family’s parts import company, Chung moved to her own business.

“I did it backwards, in that, a lot of techs, they’ve been industry for a while and then they opened up the shop,” she said. “I started the shop, built the business, then went back to trade school and wrote my ticket.”

Female sole proprietors are rare, and so are technicians.

“When I went to trade school for the pre-apprenticeship side, I was one of three females,” she said. “In between shop classes, I would run to the other side of Centennial and pump milk because I was still nursing at that time.”

Emily Chung, technician and owner of AutoNiche in Markham, Ontario, torques a wheel nut on a Chevrolet Volt

There are now many more women in the classes Chung teaches. But the Auto Niche owner cautioned against an undue focus on ‘women in skilled trades.’

“There’s a fine line where the messaging gets to be almost like ‘you’re favoured’ or ‘you get bonus points’ or ‘had it not been for this initiative, you couldn’t have done this on your own’,” she noted.

“My big message is that skilled trade is about skill. I don’t care what body parts you have. I don’t care what you identify as. I really don’t care. Can you fix this car? Yes or no?”

She worries that a focus on gender differences can lead to division and sow resentment on the shop floor, especially if it gives people a reason to discredit women’s accomplishments and promotions. She calls for a focus on the job first and says that gender or identity should come second.

“When I step on the shop floor, when I go to training programs, even now I’m going to be one of the very few females for sure, guaranteed. I’m going to be one of the minority,” Chung said.

“But when I’m talking to high school students or college students, they’re not really formed yet or they’re not secure yet because they haven’t realized their full potential. So, the focus on them being different already is a lot of pressure and what they need is to be reminded that they’re here for the same reason that all the other straight, white men are.

“They need to be reminded that they’re here to learn the skilled trades and they’re here to get a good career out of it.”

“You know that there were many more struggles in the past, but I think today’s younger generation is more open-minded and inclusive.”

Yet despite the increase in women in the field — and the fact that women, including the three CARS spoke to — consistently earn top marks in the training phase of their careers, stigma around women in the industry is still a barrier.

“I’ve connected through social media with so many women throughout the trade, so I know that they’re out there,” Nguyen said. “All of my experiences through training, through school, have been incredibly supportive. My teachers were always supportive.”

But, she added, while there are more and more women graduating — sometimes top of their classes in these programs — it’s still now difficult for them to find jobs. Some places are hesitant to hire women.

Chung acknowledges this gap, but is optimistic about that going forward.

“You can’t solve ignorance,” she says. “I’ve had some crazy comments, and I’ve had many males and females tell me that I shouldn’t be fixing cars. So for the shop owners that say ‘I don’t want to hire a female’ because they’ve got a whole list of prejudices. I don’t know how much programming … will solve that.”

Josie Candito has owned Master Mechanic High Park in Toronto since 1999.

Instead, Chung sees the gradual shift coming from the groundswell of women in the industry, women like herself, Nguyen, and Candito, who are leading the way with their skills and commitment to the sector.

“You know, I have two boys that I’m raising. And from their perspective, a female technician is normal,” Chung says.

Candito over at Master Mechanic also sees the benefits of a shift in perception. “There’s a significant positive change around the acceptance of women in automotive from 1992 to now, for sure,” she said.

“You know that there were many more struggles in the past, but I think today’s younger generation is more open-minded and inclusive. So I think the shifts in attitude are welcoming women to the environment, paving the way to participation for the future in the industry.”

Nguyen says she hopes more women see an automotive career as a viable option for themselves.

“I wish I had known how welcoming the industry was. Or how many opportunities there are,” she said. “I might have started earlier.”

Nguyen encouraged anyone thinking about the sector to take the plunge.

“The first step to any change is scary, right?” she said. “You have to believe in yourself. Believe in your capacity to learn. You have to take a chance on yourself.”

This article originally appeared in the March/April issue of CARS

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