Recruiting female workers could be the solution to the maintenance crisis

Dec. 7, 2004
Easing the maintenance crisis should begin with recruitment of female workers.
By Lisa GreenbergKaren (not her real name) arrived at her client’s maintenance facility early one morning, ready to work on a preventive maintenance program, when an older gentleman we’ll call Ken greeted her at the door. She introduced herself in her customarily cordial manner, but once he realized that she was the one who was going to be working with him to remove some maintenance-related obstacles, he promptly objected.

“He immediately refused to tell anybody anything,” Karen recalls. “He demanded that we bring in a man to work with him and his staff.” Karen, having experienced this workplace-related bias before, assured Ken that she was qualified to perform her duties, but still, he resisted. “Then I started batting my eyelashes and flipping my hair and acting like a dumb woman,” she says. “Some guys don’t like to see women in a position of authority. So once I started acting helpless, he took me under his wing. His attitude was, ‘That poor little thing – I can help her.’”

Once she gained entry to the maintenance department, she spent the rest of the week interviewing staff members. “They were 30 rough and rude maintenance men, but I got each one to talk to me about his situation,” she says. “I did my job.” That Friday, after having observed Karen in action, Ken apologized for his initial reluctance to work with her.

But Karen knew what to expect. “Sometimes it’s just a case of a man thinking a female can’t do this job,” she says of working in the maintenance field. She knew if she worked hard enough, he would realize that she is just as competent, if not more so, than a man in the same position. “A female has to go above and beyond,” she says. 

That was 15 years ago, and Robby Aumen, director of professional services for DPSI in Greensboro, N.C. experienced this true story. She works with customers to implement maintenance-related software, but got her start in the maintenance field while she was in the Air Force. “It’s still difficult to break into that good ol’ boy network,” she says. “In the past 10 years, more women have come into the industry, but they typically have been clerks,” she says. “With more women coming out of the military, they are just as qualified as the guys.”

She says she still encounters the occasional snub because she is a woman in the maintenance field, but she’s used to it by now. “I’m too old now,” she says. “I just blow it off.” But other women who are looking for good-paying, stable jobs in the industry also have to deal with this “cultural” barrier. In this era of declining interest by young people about getting into maintenance, companies should be flinging open their doors and welcoming women who are smart enough and strong enough to enter a nontraditional field. Women can help this country avert the impending maintenance crisis, and it would be a huge blunder on the part of maintenance managers to alienate half of the workforce because of misperception.
On Dec. 7, Mpact Learning Center, Greensboro, N.C., held a tribute to women in the maintenance field. The maintenance training facility is working in conjunction with Greensboro’s Women’s Resource Center to train 25 employable women by December 2005. Mpact is going to help with outplacement services, but it really comes down to industry’s willingness to help these women secure jobs. “We’re already getting companies that wouldn’t normally have considered hiring a woman to think about it and change their hiring practices,” says Joel Leonard, an instructor for Mpact. “Women are underrepresented. We are working with some women who will do whatever they can to help these companies.” For employers who have begun to hire more women, they say it is refreshing to discover workers who will go the extra mile for them.

Leonard says women are better suited to perform some maintenance activities than men are. “Women are more detail-oriented. Men have a hero complex: We let something go until it is burning down and then we want praise for putting the fire out. Women are good at preventing these situations and performing more of the preventive maintenance.”

Women also get a lot out of the job besides a regular paycheck. “When you get in front of these guys and prove yourself, that feels good,” Aumen says. “The men realize that you are just like any other coworker on the job.”

Lisa Greenberg is managing editor of Plant Services magazine. Contact her at [email protected].