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Anonymous mechanic: How hiring has impacted diversity in our industry

Published February 26, 2019

Editor's note: The author asked to remain anonymous because his or her employer has different opinions.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the diversity problem in the bike service industry, and what needs to happen to change it.   Obviously, the biggest problem lies with people in management who don’t actually see a lack of diversity as a problem. Beyond that, the managers who do feel that diversity is a worthwhile political objective often imagine that managing a diverse staff will be more difficult and uncomfortable, or they worry that it will ruin the atmosphere of unprofessional clubhouse camaraderie that they think motivates their long-term staff to stay despite the low pay.

Even those who claim to be open to hiring mechanics from underrepresented groups will often say that they never get applications from anyone other than straight white men, and assume that there is something about the work of making a living as a bicycle mechanic that only appeals to straight white men.

The PBMA workshops offer professional-level training. The fact that it takes a scholarship program just to get the attendance to reflect the extremely low level of representation of W/T/F/etc. within the industry, indicates there are serious barriers to members of underrepresented minorities gaining senior positions in bike service departments. It also indicates that there are barriers preventing these mechanics from imagining that improving their technical skills can increase their earning potential or career satisfaction enough to be worth the cost.

Don't stop hiring seasonal students who love bikes, just stop hiring unambitious students as bike mechanics.

The PBMA and QBP/UBI scholarships are very important and useful, but they also fail to address the problem of good career prospects in the bicycle industry, especially for underrepresented groups 

When the PBMA moved the job board to Facebook last month, one of the first jobs posted in the new PBMA Job Resource group read: “Our shop needs a few more professionals. It would be great to hire a seasoned mechanic, but if you’re not, we can train ... as long as you WANT to be professional.”

I think this kind of attitude could be really a big part of the solution to the diversity problem, if it's combined with a willingness of shop owners to share a vision of a place for diverse professional career mechanics in their shops.

The fact is, in order to improve the diversity of professional bike mechanics, there needs to be a widespread change in hiring and promotion practices in bike shops everywhere. This means that some unambitious straight white men will no longer be able to get entry-level bike mechanic jobs in shops, because those jobs will now be going to people of color, women, lgbt people, and other underrepresented people who actually want a career as a bike mechanic. 

Simply put, bike shops need to stop hiring college students who don’t take the job seriously, and make openings of jobs with clear paths to advancement available to diverse candidates. For this to happen, shop owners and managers also need to take the job seriously, and they need to want to have both diversity AND professionalism in their permanent senior staff.

James Stanfill recently argued that shops should pay their best mechanic one-third of the shop’s labor rate. The interesting thing about that figure is that on the one hand way too many temporary “bike mechanics” are in training for careers that pay many times that rate, while on the other hand one-third of a shop’s labor rate is a much better wage than many members of minority populations can expect to earn even from a job that requires a college diploma.

If shop management can work out clear expectations of what competency and productivity levels need to be reached in order for employees to reach that pay level, and then promote that career path in job ads as well as in more community-based employment resources such as high school job fairs, they may find an increasing diversity of applicants who are motivated to work hard, build a career in the industry, and make the shop more money. 

Some might argue that the seasonal nature of the bike industry in many parts of the world makes it necessary to hire temporary unskilled workers like students who are willing to work long hours with no job security. There is no denying the need for seasonal workers, but more often than not it’s a waste of the otherwise productive time of the senior service staff to train unambitious students as junior mechanics, only to see them quickly move on to a different career path. 

The constant churn of overconfident, underqualified and error-prone summer students working burnout-inducing hours also creates a culture in bike shops of working conditions that are not sustainable for adults who may have dependents to care for at home.

Don't stop hiring seasonal students who love bikes, just stop hiring unambitious students as bike mechanics. Put the bike-loving future engineers and real estate brokers and physiotherapists to work doing the support labor that keeps a workshop and showroom running smoothly during the busy season: keeping the space clean, stocking shelves, pricing inventory, washing parts, calling customers, leading group rides, but DON’T call them professional mechanics. Don’t encourage them to call themselves mechanics, and don’t encourage customers to think the students can do the same work as seasoned professional mechanics. There’s no surer way to devalue labor charges in the eyes of your customers, or to discourage applicants who want a serious career as a professional mechanic from applying at your shop.

Make it clear to all staff that even an entry-level mechanic position is a career-path professional job. Have competency development expectations of mechanics. Provide training opportunities to mechanics. Involve ambitious mechanics in strategic planning of service department operations. Collaborate to create work schedules that make sense for adults who have family responsibilities. Clearly communicate what goals need to be reached in order for the mechanic to advance, and for profitability and remuneration to increase.

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