Women still underrepresented at the frontline of motor trade

Shortfall of motoring technicians as IT industry poaching the best candidates

Chelsea Brun Chelsea is one of 1,000 female apprentice motoring technicians training in Ireland this year, a record number

Chelsea Brun Chelsea is one of 1,000 female apprentice motoring technicians training in Ireland this year, a record number

 

Chelsea Brun is a rarity. It’s not, perhaps, all that unusual for her to be enthusiastic about cars – the days of sexism when it comes to being a car nut are hopefully long behind us – but it is unusual that she chose to back that enthusiasm up with her career choice. Chelsea is now a trainee technician, learning the mechanical and electronic ropes at Volkswagen Ireland’s state-of-the-art training facility in west Dublin. She’s one of 1,000 female apprentice motoring technicians training in Ireland this year – a record number, but it still means that women are vastly underrepresented on the mechanical side of the motor trade.

“Ever since I was old enough to hold a screwdriver I was taking things apart and trying to figure out how they worked,” she says, “I had an awful habit of bringing my parents random screws and bolts. Eventually my desk would fall apart and that’s when they figured out where all the bits came from,” Chelsea says. She landed her apprenticeship with Wexford Volkswagen in Strandfield, Co Wexford, just before the Covid shutters came down on the trade last year. “I was incredibly lucky because a couple of months later and I wouldn’t have got the job. I was able to work right through the pandemic while my friends were stuck at home during lockdown.”

In many ways it shouldn’t be news that someone of a particular gender is studying to be a motor mechanic. That it is, is somehow a little saddening, but while its true that Chelsea being a woman makes her rarer than rare in the motor trade, the fact is that just being an apprentice makes her rarer still. There is a consistent undershoot in the number of apprentices being trained against the number actually needed, and that’s in spite of bursaries being offered to those looking to train.

The problem is twofold, according to Robert Guy, director of group aftersales services for Volkswagen Group Ireland. “We usually run at about 85 per cent of what we need, in terms of the number of technicians” says Guy. “That’s been exacerbated by the pandemic, and there is now a shortage of apprentices coming in to the trade.”

The first half of the problem is the perception of the industry. Neither students nor parents it seems, see a career in the motor trade as a long-term one. Indeed, anecdotally, there is a certain level of pearl-clutching and fanning of faces if someone’s child comes home from a careers day and says they want to be a mechanic. Most people see the incoming tide of electric cars, and have heard something about autonomous vehicles, and assume that the work of draining oil and changing spark plugs is a dead end.

“As an industry, we need to work a bit harder on that,” says Guy. “Maybe we’ve been caught napping.” The fact is that while combustion engines may well be on a steady, slow decline to extinction, every other facet of a car is becoming ever more complex, and anyone who’s going to work on one needs to be very carefully trained, to an exceptionally high standard.

One of the biggest issues at the moment is the incredibly fast ramping up of electronic driver aids and how they affect, and are affected by, all of the other components of the car. “When someone pulls into a dealership and says ‘Hi, I’d like the get the wheels on my Audi A6 aligned’, they don’t comprehend the amount of technology that goes on around that, ” John Cunningham, Volkswagen Ireland’s head of training, says.

“Adjusting the tracking on a car used to be relatively simple, but now, when you do that, you have to show all of these high-end systems that the tracking has been changed, otherwise things such as lane-keeping steering won’t be able to keep the car straight.” In other words, all of the fancy electronics won’t work properly unless the more familiar mechanical components have been lined up properly first. On top of which, the same fancy electronics have to be correctly told and taught what the mechanical setup of the vehicle is, or they won’t work. That is the job of the technician, and it’s pushing the job into a high-tech new arena.

Training is intense

Guy likens working on a modern car to being “like on a Boeing 737” and the training is intense. It can take as long as 10 years to train someone to ‘master technician’ standard – easily the equivalent of a third-level degree, and there is some rancour that such qualifications are not given their due recognition – and even once done, it’s easy to lose that person to another industry. This is the second problem, and a major reason for the shortfall of technicians and mechanics in the industry.

“We create ready-made technicians, and then the likes of Intel come in, and we lose people out the door in front of us,” says Cunningham. “Technology has taken a massive leap forwards, in a very short space of time, and the general public just hasn’t noticed. They just get into the car, press the button, and drive home. But to keep that car maintained properly, we need apprentices to come in now at a very high level, and we need them to see that this is a career that can last them 30 years, if not more.”

The move to electric vehicles doesn’t reduce that demand, it actually accelerates it. While the sheer mechanical maintenance of electric cars is lower in some areas – there are, after all, physically fewer moving parts in an electric motor than there are in even a humble four-cylinder internal combustion engine – the fact is that battery and motor technology is not as simple as it seems on the surface, and technicians need intense training on how to properly maintain both through their service lives.

“They won’t be pulling engines apart, or putting new pistons in, but the skillset is moving on,” says Cunningham. “But they will be stripping batteries down, removing damaged cells, and replacing them with fresh ones, for instance.” That battery work is doubly difficult simply because of the danger involved. Taking apart a combustion engine, the worst danger you’re exposed to is perhaps dropping something heavy on your foot, or scalding yourself on a hot component. Taking apart an 800-volt battery involves intense training to make sure that, bluntly, you won’t kill yourself trying – that much voltage doesn’t take any prisoners when it comes to safety.

Poster child

Brun, then, can become something of a poster child for this new generation of vehicle technicians (“mechanics” hardly seems apposite these days) and Cunningham is convinced that she can go on to ever greater things. “Chelsea is the type of person who ends up working in Formula One,” he says, “I would not be at all surprised to hear she is working for Lotus or McLaren in 10 years’ time.”

Brun says: “In Germany, they use the expression ‘Diesel im blut’ or ‘Diesel in the blood’. It takes 10 years to become a master technician, so I want to get there by the time I’m 35. I am proud of my work because I feel like it is something I was born to do. I want to prove myself and be the best woman in this field because I know I am capable. I am here to make a point.”