Delve into the experiences of two accomplished professionals who have forged their own paths in the world of fleet management and what it means to be a woman in fleet management. From the initial jobs that brought them into their roles to navigating challenges, they offer a candid retrospective on their work, innovations, and the evolving landscape of an industry often overlooked but crucial to keeping operations running smoothly.
Two Journeys Into Fleet
Josephine Valencia’s entire 25-year career has been in solid waste in one capacity or another, from the collection side to the regulatory side, it’s what she knows. But as someone who grew up in New York City and didn’t even receive her driver’s license until much later, being a part of fleet wasn’t initially in the picture.
However, while fleet may not have been a part of Valencia’s plans at first, the path to it was already in sight.
“I've always wanted to work in the solid waste industry,” Valencia explained. “And obviously, fleet is a big component of solid waste collections.”
Valencia currently holds the position of solid waste department deputy director for the city of San Antonio, Texas, where she has worked since 2010.
The road to deputy director began early on when she was an equipment operator before taking positions within the collection and regulatory divisions. It was when she returned to the collection side of the industry that fleet really became a larger part of her work.
“That's where I started developing a bigger interest in the mechanical automotive side of it since it’s such a big component of the solid waste industry,” she said. “Without the trucks, the trash doesn't get picked up. So it started giving me a different perspective on the importance of maintenance and how it’s tied to the industry. It gave me a new appreciation for the vehicle aspect of it.”
For San Antonio’s Heavy Equipment Superintendent Naomi Puente Good Shield, the entryway into fleet started with her father, who she calls a “do-it-all man.” It was with her father that she learned the ins and outs of being a mechanic. And like Valencia, her interest in the field grew. So she decided to enlist in the Marines where she received her formal training as a technician in off-road diesel engines.
For four years, Puente worked on everything, from front-end loaders to bulldozers. However, after her time in the military, Puente wasn’t sure if she would stay in the profession. It wasn’t until she and her family moved to San Antonio that she decided to continue on the same career path.
“It’s been almost nine years and I don't know why I ever thought I wanted to do something else because I thoroughly enjoyed doing this,” she said.
Puente spent the first six years as a diesel mechanic for the city. She acknowledges that not all women have had as positive an experience as she has.
“It can be a little hard sometimes depending on where you go,” she said, adding that she first started working with the off-road manager for the fleet division at the time. “He didn't skip a beat and would say ‘well, let's see what you can do.’ He gave me jobs starting small and then they got bigger and bigger.”
Finding Ways to Meet New and Old Challenges
For Valencia, fleet consists of not just the breakdowns but the drivers as well, noting that it’s equally important for her to know that the drivers of the vehicles are safe and the vehicle is reliable as well as comfortable.
For example, with their location in Texas, during a heatwave air conditioning becomes a trademark priority. Then there’s the issue of dealing with extreme cold. Valencia spent time working in North Carolina where she had to worry about ice storms, which meant she had to make sure that they were able to get trucks ready in the morning and ensure the drivers were prepared for the day. As Valencia noted, “day-to-day operations take time.”
For Puente’s part, the goal is to stay on top of every part of the operation. This includes mechanics doing a type of pre-trip and being familiar with how each type of vehicle should work.
Over the summer, air conditioning has been at the top of the priority list, which means Puente and her team have been working to make sure that drivers are comfortable.
“When it's 100 degrees out and you're sitting on top of an engine separated by only a thin piece of metal, it gets really hot,” she said. “It's always better to be two steps ahead instead of being reactive.”
This includes taking advantage of when the weather cools down to ensure that all the trucks' cooling systems are working.
Puente explains that post-COVID the fleet has had to retain older trucks and maintaining them has been a challenge in and of itself. Because of this, much of the work comes down to preventative maintenance.
“We want to check the trucks as soon as they come into our shop, we check them from top to bottom to see if we can find anything before it gets to that point where we have to call and get it towed,” Puente said. “A lot of it comes down to being creative in finding things and not going down the traditional route of going back to where we bought the truck.”
But what about the challenges that don’t come with the seasons?
For obstacles like parts replacement, Valencia and her team have their own way of keeping the operation running smoothly. While normally they were able to replace their automated side loaders roughly every seven years, now they are extending the lifecycle. In the past, when they would buy a new vehicle, they would sell the old one at auction. Now, they’ve started holding off selling some of their older vehicles, which will sit in the yard in case a part needs to be cannibalized.
“There are so many things that seem to be in short supply or changing, plus the new technology that’s out there, from onboard cameras systems to new heat shield protections,” she said.
Leading a Team to a Successful Future
Valencia’s department is a large one with around 800 employees spread across 15 different work locations keeping operations up and running. Management makes it a priority to meet with everyone in person at least once a month.
“Once or twice a week, we will go to a different location at the beginning of the workday, and have a meeting with our employees,” she said. “I think it's important for folks at the executive level to not forget what it's like to work in the trenches.”
When Puente first enlisted in the military she received a piece of advice from a sergeant that she has continued to hold on to throughout her career.
“He said, ‘If you really want to do your job well, learn the vehicles and do the work.’ If there was a task that I knew could be done on my own, I did it. I would watch someone do it first and then just do it,” she recalled. “Don't be scared about messing it up.”
Similar to what her sergeant told her, Puente recommends that new technicians read everything they can about the equipment and vehicles they are working on.
“There's only one way to fix it,” she said. “And if you read those books, they’ll tell you how to fix it.”
Puente is a big proponent of hands-on training. She advises new technicians to start looking at the moving parts of anything, whether that is an electric vehicle or a bicycle. As she puts it, if someone is curious and passionate about working on vehicles then there is nothing stopping them from learning how to do it.
San Antonio’s solid waste department consists of roughly 70% of the heavy equipment work. However, the equipment was previously done out of about four different service centers, including five actual shops for different services. About six years ago, solid waste was given permission by the city manager to take over that responsibility.
“We grew the department and I think the benefit for us was our missions of picking up garbage and getting equipment ready to go were aligned,” said David Newman, director of San Antonio’s Solid Waste Management Department.
Newman uses the example of a refuse truck costing over $400,000, plus adding the time of receiving it being approximately two years. Because of this, they would prefer to hire more technicians due to the large need to repair a truck in leu of buying another one.
“Garbage trucks have a short lifespan. Parts are expensive, and we rely on those shops to work their magic so that we can pick the garbage up,” he said.
Navigating Fleet as a New Employee
As a seasoned professional, Valencia recognizes the challenges faced by newcomers trying to navigate their way in the industry. She added that it can be difficult to assert oneself when established veterans advocate for the status quo, stating, 'It can be hard to summon the courage to try something new when a seasoned expert with 30 years of experience insists, "This is how we do it."'
However, Valencia sees immense value in the perspectives that newcomers bring. “They have a unique creativity and aren't necessarily set in their ways,” she explained. Valencia acknowledges a prevalent mindset in the industry, cautioning against the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' attitude that often prevails. “There’s a tendency to say ‘We've been doing XYZ for so long, and it's worked okay for us,’” she observed, echoing a reluctance to embrace change.
Finding a delicate balance between inexperience and creativity is crucial, according to Valencia. She notes that new employees shouldn't overhaul everything overnight, respecting established procedures for a reason. However, she advocates for a proactive approach, suggesting, doing research on new procedures or equipment and presenting those findings to experienced colleagues opens a dialogue for potential exploration. Valencia's perspective sheds light on the dynamic interplay between tradition and innovation within the industry.
New to the Industry and Climbing the Fleet Ladder
“There are a lot of new people coming into this occupation,” said Puente. Within her own team, there are several younger people, with the youngest being 20. “They're very hungry to learn.”
This is just part of the positive evolution Puente is seeing in fleet, among which is the increase of women joining the industry. Since she was hired, there have been four other women hired on as technicians.
But the success of the team has revolved around camaraderie, according to Puente.
“They’re always talking, they know that when someone gets pulled off a truck because it's the end of their shift, the next person already knows what's going on with it because they were already discussing it. It's a lot of friendly competition.”
No matter a tech’s background or training, Puente prefers to have new hires take on basic tasks to get them familiar with the trucks. She will also usually partner them with a mentor; something she brought back from the military.
“I think putting them with someone who is more knowledgeable, someone that they can go to when they're stuck, is why we have such a good relationship with everybody,” Puente said. “We like to tell them that they can always ask questions.”
Puente advises this: If someone is interested in entering this industry, they need to invest themselves in what they’re going to be doing. As a side note, she emphasizes the need to know what the job entails.
“If you don't do that, it's going to be miserable, but if you do it right, it's enjoyable.”
All Roads Lead Back to Fleet
Valencia echoes what many others in the industry have felt — that fleet is a large part of the public’s everyday life, yet not many people take it into consideration.
“Transportation makes everything go. It is the thing that is incredibly important from a residential standpoint. No matter what service you as a resident need, it involves fleet, whether it's police, whether it's fire, whether it's garbage collection, just about every single thing that you need to do in the United States involves some kind of vehicle.”
Challenges as a Woman in the Fleet Industry
Changes like adding women’s restrooms — Valencia's first job in the industry didn't have them — are an example of how the industry is moving in the right direction when it comes to inclusion. Looking back at her past, Valencia said it is hard to sum up the changes in a simple way.
Valencia believes that doing good work is key, no matter your job or gender, and it can help anyone move up. She's faced stereotypes at work, but she hopes that by proving herself, she's changed the minds of those who doubted her. Now she hopes to encourage fairness and recognition for everyone, no matter who they are.
“The perception of women in fleet and other traditionally male-dominated industries seems to go to one extreme or the other,” she said. “There also seems to be a tendency to try and put women into a box…but society is constantly evolving.”
She compares this to how shops have evolved, explaining that in the past air conditioning or adequate lighting and ventilation weren’t a consideration. However, workers’ rights have evolved changing the industry for the better.
“Women's rights have evolved, everything changes over time, and I think it's not something that's unique to the fleet industry,” she said. “I think, as society changes, you know, fleet and other industries change along with it.”
Making the Most of Your Time in Fleet
When asked how other women can follow a successful career path, Valencia points to talking and meeting with other women, and men, in the industry. She explained that part of this is to dispel any misconceptions about what the job entails.
“Most people have a vision in their mind of what the job is and then you come out and actually talk to someone who does it and either you'll find out ‘wow, that's a lot more interesting than I thought’ or you find out that ‘no, that's not at all what I want to do.’” For women she adds “talk to other women who are in the industry and see what is it that attracted them to the industry and what the pros and cons are as well.”
Valencia notes this also applies to people already in the industry who are looking to be promoted, such as a mechanic who wants to one day be a supervisor. This is why Valencia encourages shadowing people who are already in that position.
It is an area Valencia is especially proud of in regard to her division.
Their fleet apprenticeship program allows them to grow their positions through three levels of mechanics: Mechanic one, two, and three.
Individuals in mechanic one start on smaller jobs such as simple repairs or oil changes. Once a year an assessment is done where the technician is tasked with diagnosing and fixing a pre-planned issue. If they pass the assessment, they move on to the next level and receive a raise.
Valencia said this has been very successful, especially in government where promotions may only happen when someone leaves or retires.
On top of this, it has helped strengthen the pipeline between applicants and long-term careers.
According to Newman, they were receiving a large number of applications from people with “motivation, great attitudes of learning potential,” but not the needed experience. So they decided to bring these people on and have them progress in the work they are doing, starting with basic tasks, such as changing oil and replacing tires.
After a year of experience with satisfactory performance, they would move into a second position and receive a 15% pay increase. They could later qualify for another 10% in addition to other benefits.
In addition to that job progression, all the employees in the solid waste department as well as across the city saw significant pay increases.
“We're really happy with where we are,” said Newman. “I think we're pretty competitive and compared to the private sector this is a good place to work.”
Valencia refers to it as a true career profession.
“It’s been difficult to hire mechanics right now, not just for governments, but for fleet in general, so this internal training and promotion program has been beneficial to us,” she said.
To sum it up, both Puente and Valencia describe a career in this industry as challenging but rewarding for the right person.
“It's a wonderful field to go into,” said Puente. “This job is really important and it's a job that needs to be done; there is a lot of fulfillment in it.”