Women offer perspectives on careers and issues in collision repair industry
Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.—Although the Women’s Industry Network (WIN) annual conference is designed to serve the needs of women in the collision industry, the content included topics of equal interest to anyone owning or working in a shop, from the challenges of the technician shortage to the need to understand automaker repair procedures.
Speaker Debbie Day, of Mitchell International, for example, emphasized the need to follow those procedures.
“From I-CAR on down, everyone says you have to follow the OEM repair procedures, and I completely agree,” said Day, executive vice president for Mitchell’s auto physical damage business unit. “There is no substitute for following the vehicle manufacturer procedures. The challenge for us right now is getting our hands on them and being able to navigate them.”
Even finding information about the once-simple process of disconnecting and reconnecting a battery can be a challenge, she said, because one manufacturer may include that under mechanical procedures while another may place that elsewhere within their published procedures.
“Navigating that tree of procedures is very difficult. On average, it takes someone two hours to research procedures before they can ever start repairs on these modern, complex vehicles.”
Attracting talent to the industry
The need to attract more young people to the industry – female students, in particular – was among the topics tackled in a panel discussion during the three-day conference. Panelists Connie Manjavinos and Madison Ervin, who work as a painter and a fabricator, respectively, at a restoration shop in Florida, said they have been “brainstorming on that topic since we started working together.”
Manjavinos, 27, said social media is helpful. She has two Instagram accounts (GirlsBehindTheGun and FutureFinishers) designed to inspire children and to feature women working in the industry. Their employer also participates in “Operation 300,” a non-profit that helps the children of those killed during military service. As part of Operation 300, children and their guardian or remaining parent come into the shop to airbrush a model vehicle.
Reaching high school counselors is also critical, Ervin added.
“I was told in high school, when I said I wanted to take the automotive technical class, that that wasn’t something I should do, that I should take cosmetology,” she said.
That’s the class she took, and it wasn’t until just before she was about to take additional cosmetology training after high school that she saw a commercial for a welding training program at a for-profit college.
“I saw sparks going everywhere and thought it was the coolest thing ever. I thought it was amazing. I told my mom I wanted to go to welding school, and we went that day and I signed up. I never finished my cosmetology training. If I would have known in high school that this industry was an option, then I would have put my foot down, and said, ‘No, this is what I want to do. Let me take this automotive class. I don’t care that it’s all guys. It doesn’t matter.’”
Manjavinos said the industry needs to reach students even before high school. She related a story, told to her by the host of the “Femcanic Garage” podcast, about a 5-year-old girl who loved working on cars.
“All the girls at school were telling her, ‘Why are you doing this? It’s a boy’s job.’ She got so discouraged that she went home crying and said, ‘Mommy, I don’t want to be a girl anymore, because I want to do this, but the girls are laughing and telling me it’s a boy’s job. I want to be a boy and work on cars.’”
Panelist Trista Anger, regional business manager for BASF Automotive Refinish in Canada and a new member of the WIN board, said guidance counselors and parents aren’t the only ones with a misperception about the collision repair industry. She said she has never been easily intimidated, having previously worked in oil fields “with rough-and-tumble guys.” So she was surprised by her reaction, while working after college in human resources for an insurance company, when CARSTAR suggested she consider a position with them.
“My first thought was: ‘Gross, I don’t want to work in body shops,’” she said. But she ended up taking that job 15 years ago, finding herself involved with “some of the most respectable, hard-working, amazing people you could ever hope to work for.”
She said being a woman in the industry hasn’t proven to be a hindrance. Shortly after joining CARSTAR in 2004, a vice president of claims at an insurance company requested a meeting with her.
“He told me, ‘I wanted this meeting today because I thought it was a novelty. I wanted to see what a woman on the collision repair side would mean, what would that look like,’” Anger said. “My immediate response was just to say, ‘Well, I wasn’t sure what you would look like either,’ and the meeting just went on from there.”
Panelist Kristen Felder, of Collision Hub, said she, too, has tried to counter some people’s perceptions about women in the industry by always “fighting for more knowledge.” When an employer wouldn’t pay for certain training or allow her to travel to industry events, she’d use her own money and vacation time to attend.
“There was nothing that was going to get in the way of me having the most knowledge in the room,” she said. “I enjoy when people underestimate women in this industry. Take your eye off me and let’s see what happens. When they don’t count you in, you can do whatever you want to do. You can go as far as you want to go.”
Manjavinos and Ervin said they, too, faced some challenges as they began their careers. Manjavinos said her manager at a collision shop where she was a painters’ assistant said he wouldn’t be able to move her up when the shop’s painter retired.
“He said, ‘Connie, we love you but the old man makes the decisions, and at the end of the day, he’s super old-school. He’s not going to want a female painter.’”
Ervin said unlike some of her previous employers, her boss appreciates having women in the business.
“We’re clean, organized, and keep everyone in line. He likes that, because he can work and not worry about what’s going on out in the shop because he knows he has people who care. I’m not that strong, so he’s getting tools that will make it easier for me to do the work. He’s told me, ‘I want to make this as easy as I can for you.’ It means a lot to work for someone who cares, and who doesn’t constantly put you down because you are a female.”
“A lot of people get discouraged at the beginning, if they go through bad experiences,” Manjavinos said. “They might decide it is a man’s trade. I don’t want people to have that mindset. Don’t let it discourage you. Continue forward, because at the end of the day, this is what you want.”
Making women feel welcomed and able to contribute could go a long way to solving the industry’s technician shortage, she said.
“I don’t have any kids of my own, but I have 13 nieces and nephews, and they want to do this type of work,” Manjavinos said. “That’s the best feeling ever.”