NORTH TAMPA — When Rob Elder laid out the plans for his new state-of-the-art Ford dealership on N Florida Avenue, he had one very important request: a separate restroom and changing facility in the service center for female automotive technicians.
Elder currently does not have any female technicians on staff, but he hopes that will soon change.
"We made it a high priority to ensure female technicians would not only have a place to work, but also an environment in which they would feel valued," he said.
Inspired by his mother's legacy, Elder has made it his personal mission to help put an end to gender inequality in the automotive industry. When Elder was 12, his father died suddenly, leaving his mom, Irma Elder, to provide for the family. A housewife at the time, Irma rose to the challenge, taking over her husband's business to become the first female to own a Ford dealership in the Detroit area.
She went on to establish Elder Automotive Group, which now operates nine dealerships in Michigan and Florida.
"My mom made it in a man's world, so what is to say that a woman can't make it in any man's world, whether it be car dealers, truck drivers or, in this case, service technicians," Elder said.
When mechanic Hope Peterson speaks to young women about the field, she begins by asking how many of the girls have ever had to pop the chain back on their bicycle. She tells them that is how it all begins.
Peterson enrolled at Pinellas Tech 21 years ago after an aptitude test revealed she was mechanically inclined, and earned her Automotive Service Technology certification. She was the only female in her class.
Today she owns New Hope Auto & Truck Services in Clearwater.
"I'm excited to get up in the morning and diagnose another car and get the customer back on the road," Peterson said.
Still, she hasn't seen a lot of women follow her footsteps.
Tony Molla, vice president of communications with the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, pointed out that there has never been a better time for women who are interested in becoming a service technician. Not only have technological advances minimized the heavy lifting and dirty work once associated with engine repair, but there is also an overall shortage of skilled technicians in the field — both male and female.
"The modern automobile is really a rolling computer," Molla said. "Being a technician has become less about gender and more about getting the right training."
Despite a shift in the industry, female technicians are still rare. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women account for just 1.8 percent of the 863,000 automotive technicians and mechanics in the country.
Elder is not alone in his mission to increase these numbers.
The Car Care Council Women's Board advocates for women in the field by offering networking opportunities, mentoring programs and scholarships. In 2014 alone, the group awarded $24,000 in scholarships to female students studying to enter the industry.
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Peterson said it is up to the adults — guidance counselors and parents — to help break down the stereotype that being a mechanic is a man's job, as well as simply encouraging young women to consider the trade school route.
"College isn't for everyone," she said.
Tampa Bay Tech teacher Antonio Santana, also does his part to encourage female students to take a closer look at the automotive industry. Although his classes focus on auto body work instead of mechanics, he faces the same gender stereotypes.
The key he said is to educate students and their parents on the wealth of opportunity available in the field.
"Often times, parents strongly encourage daughters to lean towards the medical and business professions," Santana said. "The irony is that they forget there are business career opportunities available within the industrial trades, especially in the commercial transportation field."
Santana has a number of female students in his program, including Kianna Baldwin, whose Capstone project involves giving a Fast and Furious finish to an old car.
He added that while attitudes towards women in the industry have improved drastically in recent years, there is still a tendency to treat them differently. His advice to his fellow trade instructors: "Don't treat the girls like you would treat your daughters. Treat them like you would treat an employee who is taking on a $2,000 repair job."
For women who are interested in pursuing a career as an automotive technician, a vocational or other postsecondary training program in automotive service technology is considered best. Many dealerships, including Elder Ford of Tampa, offer apprentice programs and ongoing training through auto manufacturers.
Income varies and is generally based on the skill set and area of expertise. Elder said his technicians average between $40,000 and $50,000 per year, with his top performer earning $120,000 annually.
"The future can be really great for women who want to be technicians — it is a very rewarding job and when you find the right place to work, the sky is the limit," Elder said.