This Canadian automotive pro is British Columbia’s shining ambassador for healthy work culture in the trades.
AUTOBODY SOURCE STAFF
THE RUNDOWN: Avid Mustang “Bullitt-head” Meghan McEwen is a standout industry role model. She partnered with Ford Canada in 2020 to highlight women in automotive to promote a welcoming, healthy and safe culture for tradesladies. With Red Seal automotive refinishing, third-year automotive service, and upcoming Level 2 auto body and collision certifications under her belt, she’s a multi-skilled force to be reckoned with.
Building your career hasn’t been easy. What drives your positive focus on giving back?
Meghan: I’ve worked in the industry for ten years and everybody has valid complaints about some negative aspects, but I believe we all have a responsibility to make things better. Some working conditions are not good, right? But unless we’re actively doing something to try to make a difference to make it better for everybody else, then we can’t really complain. I’m only one person but I will work tirelessly to improve industry standards.
You’ve channeled that energy toward some constructive initiatives. What has those experiences taught you?
Meghan: Partnering with Ford Canada recently and mentoring women and young girls in my province to show them that they have a place in this industry has been super cool. When an apprentice is struggling in their field socially or with skills training, which I definitely did, having that kind of support can go a long way. I’ve spoken at schools to help them know what career paths are out there and to foster a welcoming and safe culture in the trades. The college where I finished my apprenticeship recently asked me to speak to the students about the auto refinishing trade. I’m really proud to play a small role in opportunities that I think could potentially be groundbreaking in this industry—and in all industries, for all I know.
You’re candid about the challenges you’ve faced starting out. Was this industry what you expected once you graduated?
Meghan: As a kid, I always liked cars. When I was about 17, I started my apprenticeship as a mechanic and I did not like it. So I took a brief break and I worked in cosmetics for a bit, but I couldn’t get cars out of my head. I discovered autobody and painting, and I can’t believe how much I enjoy it. It’s just a perfect fit for me.
When I got into the trade, I was given the expectation that painters make $150K a year and the reality is—I don’t know if it’s because of COVID or other issues in my province—that you’re lucky to make $22 CAD an hour right now. I think that’s a huge barrier not just for females in the industry, but for young people in general or anyone who wants to get started out. You can’t really afford much for tools on a starting wage of $15 or $16 CAD an hour.
I was told by many peers in the industry that it was going to be so much better than the retail job I was working, and that 6-figure expectation has really proven to be that it must be a one-in-a-million job for anyone to be making that kind of money right now.
You’ve presented on a panel for the Industry Training Authority of British Columbia. What factors would you suggest that the industry consider?
Meghan: Here in the Province of British Columbia, there are government grants for this field, but I personally found them difficult to apply for. They have stipulations. My first-year apprenticeship grant was $1K which paid for me to attend my second year plus textbooks, which I’m very grateful for. But that didn’t leave any wiggle room to purchase what I needed on the job. The average bill for hand tools and the equipment necessary to perform today’s automotive repairs is $30K to $40K. A spray gun can cost $1200, plus a sander and block tools. Not all employers will pay for PPE, boots, etc. I don’t know anybody who didn’t start at minimum wage, whether that was pushing the broom, prepping, or whatever it may be.
Personally, I worked a part-time job in the evenings because my starting salary at my first collision shop was minimum wage. I did that for 6 months but realized I was too worn out. I had no choice, I had to drop my part-time job.
Again, I think a huge barrier that many young people face starting out, at least in the refinishing trade, is low wages. I read recently that North America will need one million automotive technicians by 2024. That was staggering to me because the window of time is so short. As a dual-trade technician my skills are so valuable in this field especially as a young person who’s a minority, and I truly love my job and I’m loyal to the trade. I’m very grateful to be where I am right now. At the end of the day, whether you’re a journeyman or an apprentice just starting out, skilled labor performed by somebody willing to do the job is hard to come by. Times are different and the wages should reflect that.
Watch Meghan’s story on her mission to inspire young girls.
MORE CONTEXT: Read Mike Anderson’s latest write-up on the wage crisis.