Refinishing The Industry

In a diverse industry, what’s killing morale for women? These automotive gals are convinced the damage is repairable with the right tools.

by Autobody Source staff

How do you know when a job feels right versus when it doesn’t? A true autobody pro won’t give the thumbs-up without a careful sweep of the hand, since damage is often easier to feel than see.

Outward appearances don’t tell as full a story as first-hand contact, whether you’re sizing up a project or a profession.

No industry is perfect and, naturally, the automotive community will show areas for improvement as it evolves. But as more non-traditional workers reach out for this field, some trainees and technicians are facing a gritty, off-kilter, abrasive perception of the trades, both in and out of technical classrooms in North America. We chatted with two female techs to begin exploring if and how this factors into the worsening technician shortage.

Standing Out & Fitting In

Before she had a driver’s license, Sophie Deslongchamps of New Brunswick, Canada, modded and repainted her first car, a 1981 Pontiac Acadian. But, at 15, she still struggled to find her place in the automotive community.

“When I was younger, I wasn’t comfortable standing out. I was stereotyped as a tomboy for painting cars and being with the boys, so the guys’ girlfriends thought I was sleeping around. But that was the least of my worries; I wanted the car!”, she laughs.

Today, Sophie is as comfortable swapping the leaf springs on her 1970 AMC Javelin SST as she is posing as a 60s-era pinup girl. But it wasn’t always that easy for her.

“Half of the girls just thought I was ‘that weirdo’ because I spent so much time in the garage, and that I had nothing in common with them, so I actually strayed away from the automotive industry because of that and it took me a long time to find “my people.”

A self-taught hobbyist, Sophie feels she was fairly insulated in her teens from the gender bias she observes at car shows today, thanks largely to her parents who supported her goals—particularly her father, who rebuilt her family’s vehicles himself and mentored her welding, painting & mechanic skills.

But, despite her budding passion for the automotive world, Sophie was strongly discouraged from getting certified as an autobody tech and eventually decided against it, which steered her toward her finance-sector day job.

“Even when I was younger, I wanted some security in life. I was “sold” on the idea that working in the corporate world was a “better” working environment, better pay with better benefits.”

A hands-on learner, Sophie says sitting in class for hours a day didn’t suit her learning style, despite making average grades in high school. She sought her school’s advice, but was never encouraged to explore a mechanical trade.

“I didn’t want to make a fool of myself in shop class. Although I went to see several counselors throughout the years, at no point did any of them make the slightest suggestion that I may love it in the autobody world. In fact, I remember having a counselor look at me with horror at the mere suggestion and told me “but you’re a lady, and you’re so smart.” I guess that is why I’ve become such an advocate of kids and women being comfortable around cars or any garage tools.”

Today, Sophie’s working toward getting her welding certification and still restores cars with her dad. She also hosts informal all-female mentoring sessions at her home workshop, inspiring & teaching those same trade skills to her friends.

Super Open-Minded

With only months left until her graduation this September, full-time adult automotive tech student Jana Warnke’s career journey is the polar opposite of Sophie’s.

The Seattle, Washington, trainee wanted to become an automotive mechanic when she was 18 but faced strong pressure from her family, who objected to her enrolling. So she learned cosmetology and worked for years, unfulfilled, as a leading nail artist & entrepreneur before starting school last year.

When she was 10, Jana says her dad wouldn’t let her help whenever he worked on his cars. “And I really wanted to understand what exploded diagrams were and why electrical circuits did what they did. When they decided they weren’t going to support me, I thought it was because I wasn’t smart enough, so I was scared away from it.”

Decades later, despite those insecurities, Jana’s at the top of her shop class. She says her teachers and supportive husband have made all the difference. “It’s interesting because my instructors are super open-minded, and I think it’s because they’ve been exposed to so many female students that they’ve started to realize that it’s common for girls to be more talkative and engaging in the classes.”

The Right Tools

Despite the worn areas, Jana and Sophie agree that rebuilding morale and moving past gender biases toward the trades is possible, with the right tools.

For teachers and counselors: “Make learning automotive relatable and fun,” Jana says. For learners and the industry en masse, Sophie’s mantra is: “Have a thick skin and don’t doubt yourself. As an instructor, as a co-worker, as a boss: Check your ego at the door. Treat me like a human with respect.”

Objectively, the two acknowledge that it’s easy to drown out good experiences with the bad if we allow them to constantly replay in our minds.

But they’re optimistic that the new generation hasn’t picked up the old generation’s bad habits. Sophie’s take: “Whoever said diamonds are a girl’s best friend has never sprayed a paint gun.”

It’s fair to ask: Is there a human, moral element to the technician shortage, untracked by industry statistics? Whether you own a shop or work in a 20-person service department, exploring this angle gives us all the space to ask each other “How am contributing to the problem or the solution?” Let’s keep the dialogue going.

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