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Women outnumbered but not out-talented in mechanic shops

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The car on the hoist at Capital Heights Auto Clinic needs a new catalytic converter. Morgan Kraft -- an air wrench in her hands and a penlight in her mouth -- wastes little time in getting the old converter out and the new one in.

It’s not something she thought she’d be doing eight months ago when she started doing oil changes in the shop’s lube department. She’s the lone woman among seven mechanics at the shop.

In 2020, about 9% of workers in the U.S. automotive repair and maintenance industry were women, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are about 743,000 automotive technicians in the U.S. and less than 2% -- fewer than 15,000 -- are women. 

Kraft in April joined the staff and thought she’d be staying in the lube department. Her transition to what she calls actual repairs started with her boss one day saying, “Go do this,” Kraft said.

“I figured it out,” she said.

She soon found herself working on tires and brakes and doing wheel alignments. She now does exhaust work, front end repairs and “lots of spark plugs.”

“I like it,” she said. “To me it’s like taking apart a puzzle and putting it back together.”

Kraft, like many women in the auto technician field, got interested with help and guidance from a family member. Her father taught her how to change a flat, put the winter tires on and change her oil. That’s how it played out for Autumn Goecke, 22, of Bismarck, a second-year auto technician student at Bismarck State College.

“He taught me all the easy stuff, oil changes, brakes, regular maintenance on your vehicle,” Goecke said.

Goecke is the only woman in her class. She’s been an apprentice technician at Eide Chrysler for more than a year and said there aren’t any barriers that would keep a woman from advancing in what has traditionally been a male-dominated field.

“It’s all on ability and how well you work,” she said.

Veterans in the industry seem to agree. Women in the automotive repair field often bring -- in addition to mechanic skills -- a certain comfort level with customers, especially women, said Peter Mandt, associate professor at the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton.

“They understand the viewpoint,” he said.

There’s a perception about “the old-fashioned mechanic” that steers some young people away from the field, Mandt said. It often takes someone to spark their interest and show them the rewards. That’s what led three young women to enroll in BSC’s auto collision course. Hannah Deichert’s grandfather and stepfather are mechanics, but her interest in body work came up when her mother’s co-worker backed into her car. She was a senior in high school and got to work on her own car in the auto body class.

“I realized this is pretty fun,” Deichert, 18, said. “I like seeing the finished project, putting the hard work into it and making it look good.”

It was much the same for Carly Seidler, whose interest in cars started when she was small. She attended car shows with her grandfather and liked the satisfaction of taking something “not so great and you fix it up and make it look brand new,” she said.

Alexys Kramber, 18, of Garrison, brings experience with an airbrush to the body shop. She painted fishing lures with her father, which made her realize what can be accomplished with a paint gun. Women should get outside their comfort zone “and just do what they gotta do,” Kramber said.

“You can’t be bad at something you never try, and you can’t be good at something you’re never willing to learn,” she said.

Seidler and Kramber plan to take their studies another step. Seidler is eyeing an auto technician associate degree, and Kamber wants to add upholstery skills to her resume. Both said paying attention to details is one of the traits that set women apart from men. Bismarck and Mandan Tire and Auto Center owner Rachel Gietzen agrees. She said that’s one reason she’d not hesitate to hire a woman for her shop.

“Everyone has different strengths they bring to the table, man or woman,” Gietzen said. “To me, a good team is a diverse team.”

The demand for auto technicians is high and the supply is short, Gietzen said. The field is "very different than that of yesteryear," because mechanics have to have computer knowledge, understand complicated vehicle systems and adapt to changes as new models are produced.

"They're not just tightening bolts," she said. "It's a field where you can make a great career."

The collision students have studied a number of subjects including metal finishing, welding, surface preparation and cost estimating. No woman in this or previous classes would have to take a backseat to anyone, said instructor Richard Bahm.

“They’re right up to snuff with anybody,” he said.

Kraft has eased into her role at Capital Heights and said the men she works with are always willing to answer questions. More women should give the field a try, she said.

“It’s kinda cool that you know what you’re talking about when it comes to vehicles,” she said. 

The men and women in the collision class get along fine, encourage and compliment each other on their work, Kamber said. There is some banter, to be sure, but Kamber said the women often stay one step ahead of the men.

“Sometimes they (the men) don’t even know what to say,” she said.

Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com

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