An untapped resource: advice for employing a female apprentice

Chelsea Bowers, 2022 Capricorn Rising Stars Top 5 Finalist

How welcoming an environment is your workshop for female employees? To find out the sorts of things business owners and managers can do to make their workplaces more welcoming to female apprentices, we spoke to two of the 2022 Capricorn Rising Stars finalists, Chelsea Bowers and Jessica Smith.

While the days when “dirty calendars” were seemingly compulsory on garage walls are, by and large, now long behind us, our industry still has a long way to go if we’re to encourage more women into our workforce. And we do want to encourage women into automotive careers. At a time when the industry is experiencing an ongoing skills shortage, attracting more women into our trade apprenticeships represents a fantastic opportunity.

Group Chief Executive Officer, David Fraser, said “We need to communicate the message that we’re a welcoming industry, we need to challenge perceptions that we’re an industry that’s only for the blokes. Providing opportunities for women and encouraging a more diverse workforce are solutions (to the skills shortage) that will make our industry a much better, happier place to be.”

Just 6% of workshops have a female mechanic and only 12% employ a female apprentice, according to Capricorn State of the Nation 2022 report.

While there’s much that can be done at an industry level to attract more women, like promoting automotive trades as a career option to girls at school, there’s plenty we can do at an individual level in our own workshops, too.

To find out the sorts of things workshop owners and managers can do to make their workplaces more welcoming to female apprentices, we spoke to two of this year’s Capricorn Rising Star finalists, Chelsea Bowers and Jessica Smith.

Creating opportunities and providing support

Jessica Smith was the kind of kid who liked to pull things apart. Like her mum’s $100 new toaster which, unfortunateLy, young Jessica was unable to put back together.

“We had a Nintendo 64,” Jessica said. “In fact, my mum bought two. A brand new one and a broken one. She gave me the broken one and said, ‘Here, this is your one’. She knew I’d have it apart in a couple of days. And I did.”

It’s the kind of behaviour that, when viewed in a young boy, would have any parent nodding to themselves, “He’ll make a good mechanic, some day”. But we might not make the same connection when a young girl exhibits the same behaviour.

By high school, Jessica was obsessed with motorbikes, off-road buggies and trucks. She did work experience at a local bus company, which cemented her desire for a career in mechanics. In 2011, she secured an apprenticeship at a local workshop. Everything was looking up. But things soon fell apart.

“I didn’t feel really supported,” Jessica said. “I realised that everyone was still in the mindset that, ’You’re a female, what can you bring to the table? You know you don’t belong in the workshop’.”

When that opportunity faded, Jessica went back to the bus company and worked there for a couple of years. Personal circumstances meant she spent a few years moving around, doing an apprenticeship in Toowoomba, Queensland, which she described as “good to start off with”. She moved to Mildura, Victoria, and contacted a local workshop advertising for an apprentice.Jessica said: “I called them up and I was like,

‘Hey, I’ve done so many years. I was just wondering if you would like my resume?’ And they actually laughed at me. He said, ‘No one wants a female in their workshop’.”

It wasn’t until 2018, when she started working at Harris Automotive in Ararat, Victoria, that Jessica said she was made to feel truly welcome in a workshop.

“The main thing is they don’t treat me like a female,” she said. “They don’t treat me like I’m something different. No one is walking on eggshells. They treat everyone like family, even their customers.”

Clearly, the culture and management style and philosophy at Harris Automotive creates a welcoming environment for Jessica. So, what other advice does she have for workshop owners wanting to encourage more female employees?

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Gender and outward appearance tell you nothing about someone’s talents, skills, work ethic or willingness to learn.

Something as simple as a “unisex” sign on the toilet door, and a lock, can make the work environment more comfortable for female team members.

If your employee has children at home or care responsibilities, be flexible and make accommodations (that’s actually great for all employees, regardless of gender).

Finally, Jessica said, if a woman calls your workshop looking for an apprenticeship or a job, don’t laugh at them.

“Give them a couple of weeks to show what they’re worth,” she said. “What’s the worst that could happen? Don’t discriminate. Give them a shot. It might be the best shot you’ve ever taken.”

John Edawards Automotive team standing in front of the workshop and smiling to the camera.

Communication and culture are key to a welcoming workshop

When Chelsea Bowers told the school careers counsellor she wanted to be a mechanic, it was suggested that she might like to try hairdressing instead.

“She said, ‘Just letting you know, the trades are really hard and very physical, and you might not make it physically’,” Chelsea said. “I was like, ‘What’s physicality got to do with it? I want to be a mechanic’.”

Chelsea left determined to get her apprenticeship — motivated, she admits, “a little bit out of spite”. She secured one at a local dealership which, she believed, appeared to be making steps towards creating a more inclusive work environment. For the first year it was interesting and fun, and she learned a lot. Then she was taken out of the workshop and spent her time washing cars.

“I thought, ‘This isn’t what I wanted to do, I’m not learning anything’,” she said. “There was also quite a negative culture in the workshop and the banter started to get out of control, so I ended up leaving because it got a bit much.”Chelsea left the industry completely for a while. She went to university but didn’t enjoy it. Deciding she wanted to finish her apprenticeship, she knocked on the door of John Edwards Automotive in Geebung, Queensland, almost on a whim.

“It was the first time I wasn’t judged as a female, but just as a person walking in to get a job,” she said. “It was the first time I realised not all places were like that first one.”

This new environment has given Chelsea the opportunity and the freedom to thrive. It’s given her real perspective on the range of experiences women have in the automotive industry, and real passion for seeing the change the industry needs to make to become more welcoming to women. What’s Chelsea’s advice to workshop owners?

Talk regularly. Clear and honest communication is essential, and it must flow in two directions and it must be ongoing. Honesty is important. Sometimes conversations are better had one-to-one, rather than in front of the team.

A good culture is vital and it is set from the top. If a team member is out of line, it’s important for the leader to get them back into line.

Work should be a place where everyone feels safe and happy (everyone has tough days, obviously, but effective communication can solve most problems).

Having respect for one another goes a long way to creating a happy and productive workplace (that includes setting firm boundaries around what is unacceptable behaviour, like flirting, being sexual or being vulgar).

Finally, Chelsea has some advice for female apprentices, which is perhaps useful for workshop owners and managers to hear, too.

“If you’re at a workshop and it’s not working for you, don’t be afraid to leave and find somewhere else that will work for you,” she said. “Don’t think you’ll look weak, don’t think you have to make it work where you are. I was pushed to breaking point (at her old dealership job), then I came here and there’s such a positive workplace culture.”

In short, if you’re not being respected where you are, move on. There are plenty of good workshops who’ll welcome your talent and skills.

So, that’s the advice of the apprentices. What about some insights from a workshop owner? Respect and a few allowances for the right person go a long way

Chelsea’s boss is John Edwards — the man with his name above the door at John Edwards Automotive in Geebung. It’s a Bosch Service Centre and a family business that opened in 1989. It employs four people. Chelsea is the first female apprentice or technician John has employed.

“She came to me and told me her story, and I thought, ‘Well, you’ve got some experience, you know what you’re getting yourself into, and you’ve been happy to come back into the industry after a bad experience, so you must really want to do it’,” John said. “So, we gave her a go, and the rest is history.”

Plenty of apprentices, both male and female, leave after a bad experience and never come back. So, given Chelsea’s success at John Edwards Automotive, perhaps it’s worth understanding John’s business philosophy. How has he created such a happy and welcoming place to work?

John runs a team-based structure, rather than a hierarchical one. No one competes for jobs, everyone helps each other. “It gives everyone a sense of belonging,” he said.

Good staff are hard to find, so it makes sense to focus on retention. Treat staff well and they’ll want to stay with you.

Treat everyone with respect. “You want everyone to have their dignity as much as possible,” John said.

He also has some specific advice when it comes to welcoming a female apprentice or technician onto the team, tackling directly the old “physicality” concern Chelsea’s careers counsellor raised.

“We had a little look at lifting wheels and gearboxes and we put some strategies in place,” he said. “We bought a gearbox lifter and a few other things that could make her job not as physically limiting.

“But Chelsea has no problems coming to us, to anyone in the place, to say ‘I can’t undo this bolt’. We help her, no problem. It’s just making sensible allowances and being practical about it.

“There are other times when I can’t get my big boofy hand in somewhere and I say, ‘Chelsea, can you get this?’ For everyone who says, ‘Oh, they should be able to do this’, well, you should be able to put your hand down this tight little hole and fix that as well.

“We treat people like people. That’s our philosophy. I don’t even look at Chelsea as a girl, she’s just another worker in the workshop. You don’t need to think of them as something different or something special. Yes, you make a few allowances, but people make allowances for you, too. It’s not that difficult.”

John said his experience also suggested that female apprentices and technicians have excellent attention to detail, actually follow the instructions in the manual and do the job “with no ego”. They’re also, he believes, generally happier.

“Maybe it’s because they have to fight a little bit more to get in or to gain acceptance or earn respect, I don’t know,” John said. “But I know with Chelsea, she’s been no issue whatsoever. Never late. Comes in every morning saying, ‘Good morning, how is everyone?’ And you’re thinking, ‘Oh shut up, Chelsea, You’re too happy!”

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This article was published 07/03/2023 and the content is current as at the date of publication.