PTEN and Motor Age magazines have teamed up with TechForce Foundation to help spotlight some amazing women in the automotive industry in hopes we can inspire more individuals to pursue careers as automotive technicians.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women made up 12 percent of the automotive industry in 2022. While that number might sound small, compared to 1999, there’s been a 10.6 percent increase over the last couple of decades.
To share and uplift the stories of women in the automotive industry, we sat down with Sidney Olson, controller at White's Canyon Motors, a Ford Dealership. Before she found herself in the position she’s in now, Olson started out as many technicians do, as an apprentice at a dealership. Over the last ten years, she’s worked her way up to more executive positions, but she always looks back fondly at her time on the repair room floor.
A little girl's dream
What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s an age-old question that everyone gets asked at one time or another. Some people work their whole lives trying to answer it, but for Olson it was a no-brainer. At 12 years old, she’d already decided her answer — she would become a professional technician. In fact, she was so sure of her decision that she told her grandpa, and a week later her first starter tool set, a Craftsman, arrived in the mail.
Olson is a part of the third generation in her family to work in either the retail or manufacturing side of the auto industry. Growing up, she felt that she would eventually end up where she is now.
“I feel like you either end up [in the industry] by accident or you grow up in it,” says Olson. “I definitely grew up in it.”
Olson’s first official job was at 16 years old working as an apprentice technician at a Chevy dealership, White’s Queen City Motors. Initially, she was hired to file paperwork, but her persistence landed her the opportunity to learn the art of automotive repair from the inside.
With 11 line techs at the dealership, Olson was exposed to a vast array of projects and repairs during her apprenticeship. None of Olson’s days looked quite the same as the one before it. On some shifts, she might come in and do nothing but oil changes all day. On another shift, she might do lifter jobs or a mix of everything.
Throughout her time at the dealership, Olson moved from apprentice technician to quick alignment specialist, then service advisor, and eventually became parts manager of the dealership.
Stepping off the repair room floor
If you were to go back in time and ask Olson where she saw herself in the future, her answer would be a little different from where she is now. From her early teen years, Olson saw herself going through all GM training and becoming a master technician. Her goal was to become the technician that dealerships called in when they couldn’t solve a problem in-house.
“That was my career goal,” says Olson. “I’m not saying I won’t do that someday, but I think that...as a mom with kids and [as] somebody who is very into the auto industry, this role that I’m in now as parts manager, but also as controller, are very strong and positive roles for the vision I had for myself.”
While the initial dreams she had for herself have changed slightly, Olson says the technician side of her career is far from finished.
Challenges faced and conquered
Being a woman in a historically male-dominated field can sometimes come with obstacles. From uniforms that don’t fit quite right or customers not taking her seriously, Olson admits that she’s had her fair share of roadblocks in her 10-year career in the industry.
“I think overall my experience has been mostly positive and ... a large part of that is that I’ve worked in the White's family organization for most of my technical career and they have been very supportive of [me],” said Olson. “My favorite thing about being a woman in the field, [with] where I’m at today, is how much I can influence it for people who are in the same place.”
With her own knowledge and experiences as guides, Olson shared ways that she believes dealerships and autobody shops could make changes to help women feel more welcome. At the dealerships she worked for, they let her bring her own tools, allowing her to feel like she had her own space in the shop.
Olson has seen quite a lot of change in her automotive career. Seeing more women step into the kind of roles she once occupied has been something she’s enjoyed witnessing.
“We have a female here at my dealership now who is about to welcome her first baby and she’s worked until just before she had him,” said Olson. “I’m not sure that 10 years ago, [with] the way the industry was set up... if she would have been supported.”
Olson cites the COVID-19 pandemic as a catalyst for the changes she’s seen in the industry. To keep technicians in general, but especially female technicians, shop/dealership owners had to get creative, and this often meant becoming more inclusive.
Still, despite the struggles female technicians face, Olson believes that there are plenty of people, both men and women, already in the industry who are ready to help people succeed regardless of gender identity.
"If I was looking at someone who is not sure what their career path would be, I would almost instantly suggest the auto industry," said Olson. "It encompasses so many different things that almost anybody can find a niche in it and... go from there."
Olson's final piece of advice for women in the automotive industry, and something that can be applied to everyone, is, "Don't be afraid to ask for advice and ask for help from people who are already here."