Female students from Dowagiac, Cassopolis and Edwardsburg April 17 visited Southwestern Michigan College automotive and construction programs on the Dowagiac campus, then toured Lyons Industries, to learn about inroads women are making in previously male-dominated fields.
Michael Newton, operations manager for six Zolman’s Tire and Auto locations in Niles, South Bend, Mishawaka, and Granger, Ind., joined the company last August from a restaurant background with Jimmy John’s sandwich chain.
“Women in our industry have been under-represented for a very long time,” Newton said. “Fifty years ago, being a mechanic was perceived as greasy and dirty and you had to be big and strong.”
Technology leveled that playing field.
“Eighty percent of decisions in any American household are made by women,” Newton said. “That’s a crazy statistic that blew my mind when I first heard it. At an average car repair facility, 65 percent of customers who walk through our doors are women.”
“In any garage there are three positions —tire techs, who install tires and do basic oil changes and help with vehicle safety inspections; and technicians who, depending on experience, can advance to master technicians.”
Technicians diagnose and fix vehicle problems.
Third, advisors are intermediaries between customers and technicians.
“That’s a position where you can make $35,000 to $60,000 a year, depending on how good you are,” Newton said. “Master technicians can make up to $80,000. Some guys make six figures because they’re that skilled and productive.”
Zolman’s seeks “balance” women can bring. “You are naturally better communicators,” Newton said. “You’re better at reading people’s emotions and body language. We want to hire people who reflect our customers, who are 65 percent women. There are not many women out there compared to demand. Our goal as a company is to grow 10 percent over the previous year.”
A woman manages his store “crushing it” at 30 percent more.
“Heidi has done that because of her soft skills,” Newton said. “She creates a connection with anyone who walks in. Her energy is infectious, so I want to turn her into a manager trainer. Female technicians tend to have more organized, cleaner areas, but also, they’re more open to learning and to technology. Ladies have done a great job breaking down barriers. Lots of industries are saturated, but the automotive industry is ripe for the taking by educated, hard-working women.”
Newton recommends women interested in the specialized field combine automotive and business coursework because today’s customers are so savvy.
“Building relationships is also a big piece,” he said. “That’s what took Heidi to the next level.”
Newton’s wife, a registered nurse, wanted her own business, so they opened an Einstein Bros Bagels franchise.
“She’s getting ready to open up two more stores in the next year,” he said.
After automotive instructor Thomas “Rock” Ruthsatz showed visitors around the automotive facilities, construction trades instructor Larry Wilson detailed SMC’s program.
The first year, fall and spring semesters for a certificate, “We build stuff,” including two Boy Scout cabins he will volunteer to help install this summer. “We will build 16 altogether. Previous years, we built four Habitat for Humanity houses” and obstacles for the Dirty Bird mud run, which funds veterans scholarships.
“Everything they do gives back to the community in some way,” according to Dr. Stacy Horner, dean of the Niles Campus, School of Business and Advanced Technology. “Last year they built playhouses we auctioned off for scholarships.”
SMC’s “two-year program goes right into Ferris State University’s four-year bachelor’s degree construction management program,” where Rachel Mroz of Lawton heads this fall. “Ferris has 12 females. I’m the only one here. Businesses fight for their top five students, who can make up to $40 an hour.”
“My journey here started when I was in high school,” attending a similar introductory program.
Mroz started last summer with a St. Joseph construction company for which her first job was working on a $1.6 million house on Lake Michigan.
“Now I’m working with the boss, going out on deck presentations and estimating,” Mroz said. “He told me there’s a career for me, but to never stop going to school for more education. I love seeing I’ve built something, even if it’s a little dog house for the neighbor down the street.”
Ally Berry is known around Edwardsburg for making international headlines during the Sochi Olympics by naming the slopestyle snowboard trick Sage Kotsenburg unveiled in an upset win for the first gold medal.
Kotsenburg, 20, from Park City, Utah, asked Facebook fans for help naming his 1,260-degree spin with two complicated board grabs.
She loved the Jay-Z song “Holy Grail” and the crail grab as a snowboarder who often faces all guys. Berry joined the two and “Holy Crail” was born.
“It was mind-blowing to see how quickly it spread,” Ally said.
Heather Reiter of Dowagiac already works for a garage in Buchanan and is also interested in welding.