Women in public fleet management face unique challenges — whether that’s establishing respect with vendors, getting buy-in with technical staff, or often being the only woman in the room. During GFX 2023 four women in fleet discussed these topics.
The fleet industry is evolving, especially when it comes to roles that may have been more traditionally taken on by men. Now, women have taken up roles in the public sector, from fleet managers to technicians. However, there is still room for growth within fleet. During the Government Fleet Conference & Expo, four leaders in fleet addressed specific concerns of women in public fleet management.
When Alison Kerstetter first started looking at stepping into the role of a fleet manager with the city of Sacramento, California, one of the first steps she took was visiting the city shops and learning the day-to-day operations. Within her first five minutes at one shop one man came up to her and asked “Why are you here?” She responded that she was interested in becoming a fleet manager and that she wanted to know more about shop operations. The reply?
“Huh, a woman fleet manager.”
As Kerstetter put it, that was her first introduction into the shops. But it only made her want to get the job even more and after a rigorous interview process, she got the job. Now she oversees Sacramento’s
That character of determination is common for many of the women who have made a home in the public fleet sector.
Helping Women Find Their Roles in Fleet
Sara Burnam, MSL, CAFM, fleet management director for Palm Beach County, Florida, started out working for Goodyear selling tires, which had an account with the Ohio State Highway Patrol. Due to this she was regularly speaking with fleet managers and learning more about the process of fleet.
“I didn’t know much about it but I loved the automotive aspect and the business component to it,” Burnam said. “So I waited for a position to come open.”
One did open at the State Highway Patrol as the office supervisor. The fleet manager and assistant fleet manager would soon be leaving, which meant they were able to train Burnam on everything fleet-related. She worked there for six years before moving to the state level then to Palm Beach County.
Burnam said when she interviewed with the county she didn’t have a lot of knowledge about the heavy equipment side and was asked how she would overcome this. She responded that not only would she work hard to learn about this area on her own but she would have the right people in place to help her manage the fleet and the technical aspect of it.
Having a group of experienced people her in circle has become a valuable asset to Burnam and one she recommends for other women navigating their fleet journey. For her, the Florida Association of Governmental Fleet Administrators (FLAGFA) has been a valuable resource enabling her to get advice from the people within the organization.
City of Stockton Fleet Manager Makela Owens, sees events, like GFX, as segways to introducing more women into fleet. When Owens attended her first GFX she was working as a fleet financial analyst for San Joaquin County and, at the time, thought she would probably go in the direction of procurement or county administration.
However, it was when she met Kathy Wellik, CAFM, the former director of transportation services at Iowa State University, that her career path began a switch.
“Just listening to her talk and hearing how confident she was about what she did I knew we had similar backgrounds,” Owens said. “I think more women seeing situations like this and hearing these stories and being able to interact with other women who are doing it they’re stepping out and they’re saying I can do it too.”
Owens, began mentoring under Wellik and, in 2022, became Stockton’s fleet manager where she manages about 1,200 units.
Wellik, who is now the Senior Client Success Manager with Agile Fleet, explained how important it is to have mentors in this field.
“I love to mentor young fleet managers,” she said. “It takes all of us and we have to help and mentor each other… we need to build each other up we need to help each other. I do think its important that you put yourself out there to help each other.”
Overcoming Obstalces and Challenges in the Industry
Owens noted that a major challenge for her was not having a knowledge base in mechanics and automotive. So she would go out into the shop and talk to the technicians and the other staff members to better understand how all the different parts worked while also developing a better relationship with her staff.
“I would just go out there and ask questions,” she said. “How I chose to overcome it was to just get involved, put on some gloves to figure out what these technicians were actually doing so that I could support them better from my perspective.”
Burnam experienced challenges right out the door while working at Goodyear. Customers would come up to her and ask to speak with a man or ignore her when asking a question.
“I was told that I could do anything and be anything I wanted,” she said. “At such a young age it took me a while to not take that personally and not get angry about it. But I just realized there’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t control how people treat you or react to you; all I can do is the best that I can. Also, you earn that respect through relationships that you have with your team.”
Wellik echoed the need to build good relationships with staff. When they would have staff meetings, it was important for her that everyone had a chance to talk.
“Build that trust with your staff, ask them what they need, help them out,” Wellik said. “Tell them you’re here to help them and just be kind to people. We all got here somehow and it’s by helping each other and overcoming these obstacles.”
A person who was influential in Wellik’s life was the manager of the bank where she once worked. According to Wellik, it didn’t matter if she was in three-inch heels or if it was after work, if something needed to be done, she wasn’t afraid to do it.
“Make sure employees see you, that they see you walk through the shop, talking to people,” she said. “Be connected and then it all comes together.”
Finding the Next Generation of Women in Fleet
As Owens pointed out, women interested in pursuing a career in fleet should identify the crucial skills they already possess. She reiterated that she knew nothing about vehicles when she first started, but she understood money, training, and development, which all helped her succeed in her fleet career.
“Whatever skill set you have, we can use that in fleet,” she emphasized.
For Kerstetter, this sentiment rang true in her own experience, from starting out as a program specialist who was responsible for all contracts, vehicle and commodity purchasing, as well as writing bids and council reports, to becoming a fleet manager.
“You really can do anything you want,” Kerstetter said. “Any of your skill sets we can accommodate.”
In Palm Beach County, Burnam works with two automotive academies, which has provided opportunities to bring in interns and then hire them on permanently. Palm Beach has already hired eight people that were interns at one time. A week before GFX 2023, Burnam met with the academies last week and was told some good news: they’ve seen an increase in women getting involved in the automotive academies.
The county currently has a female intern who works in the fleet’s specialized equipment shop where Burnam said “she’s doing amazing.” The two of them had even sat down where Burnam shared her own story about getting into fleet as well as the possibilities ahead for women wanting to explore a career in fleet.
“I think there's an opportunity there for those of us who are women in fleet to go to schools, go to career fairs, and talk to women,” Burnam encouraged.
One of the last positions Wellik hired at Iowa State University was the dispatcher. She had seen a lot of talent in their custodian who had been there for several years. Wellik saw that she was always upbeat and always helpful. So a position opened up, Wellik told her that she should consider applying. However, the woman responded that she didn’t have any fleet experience.
Wellik then asked her what she had previously done. She had worked in a nursing home taking care of patients and handling medications. The next question Wellik asked her was if she had to log those drugs. Yes was the answer. Did she use Excel? Yes.
“You’ve got to think of experience outside the box,” Wellik said. “She was doing a lot of what dispatchers are going to do. You’ve got to mentor and encourage people to think outside the box as to what it is that they're doing
The woman decided to apply and she ended up getting the job.
Looking back at her own journey into fleet, Wellik noted that she was able to transfer skill from her job in banking, such as loans and acquisitions, over to her fleet career. Because of these experiences, she encourages women from across the workforce to not shy away from a career in fleet.
“There are all kinds of different degrees that people can get and be successful in fleet because there are so many different areas in fleet,” she said. “Don’t limit yourself.”