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Looking For A Few Good Women

Forget skirts! Some women enjoy donning coveralls and working in a body shop’s production area. And though you don’t see many women in technical roles — yet — opportunities abound.

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Twenty years ago, the most common place to find a woman in a body shop was on a poster pinned to the bathroom wall.

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Times have changed. Today, it’s customary to enter a shop’s office and find women working there. But it’s still not customary to see many women in the back shop — involved in the production end of the industry.

How would I know? Because I’m a woman who’s been involved with the collision repair business, in some manner, for the last 20 years. I started out at the tender age of 14, mixing paint at a local jobber store. As time went by, I worked my way up through the ranks as a delivery driver, counter person and store manager. During that time, I learned a lot about auto paint and how to use it, as well as color theory. Later on, I spent a year working at my father’s shop, Southtowne Auto Rebuild in Seattle, where I learned how to prime, mask, block sand, detail and check in parts. After leaving his employment, I returned to the jobber store and worked as a counter person for many years. Today, you can find me working at Patrick Enterprises, my husband’s custom autobody and fabrication shop.

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The shop’s specialty is building street rods, but we do some collision work, too. My job duties include bookkeeping and office work, but paint mixing, custom tinting, blocking and color sanding are also on my duty roster. Frankly, I enjoy donning a pair of coveralls and heading out into the shop for a day of hands-on work a lot more than I enjoy doing paperwork. Someday I hope to become a painter; between my husband and Dad, I’ve got some fine teachers at my disposal, so I’m sure my hope will become a reality.

Now that you’ve got the scoop on me, let’s get back on track. When I started this article, three questions were burning in my mind:

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1. Why would shop owners value women in production roles?

2. What areas of production are especially suited for women?

3. Why are so few women involved in production, and what can be done to attract more women to those jobs?

With regard to research, I decided to concentrate on the greater Seattle area where I live and work. I know several shop owners there who’ve been around for many years, and I received valuable input from them and from females involved in production and autobody instructing.

Valuable Qualities
Every shop owner I spoke with, whether male or female, quickly named qualities that women possess that make them assets in production:

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• Leonard Lassak, owner of Thoroughbred Collision Center in Auburn, Wash., operates a state-of-the-art facility manned by 40 employees. Nine of those employees are women, and three of them fill production roles as parts manager, parts facilitator and paint-mixing/parts cut-in technician.

When I asked Lassak what characteristics these ladies have that make them valuable in production, he said: "They’re self-motivated, quick to action and have great follow-through. The women are just naturally thorough."

Lassak is obviously pleased with the results his female production techs produce, but hearing this from him wasn’t enough; I wanted to see what makes them tick and why they do this type of work, so I asked Lassak if I could talk to them myself.

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Mari Jo Rose has been employed at Thoroughbred Collision Center for six years and became involved in the industry when she began working for a parts dealership. Her current position as parts manager puts her organizational skills to good use since she orders all the parts for every job. "My job duties are never identical, and I’m constantly busy," says Rose, when asked what she enjoys most about her job. "There’s never a dull moment."

Marilyn Castleberry, parts facilitator, must make the most of communication and organizational skills to complete her long list of job responsibilities, which include checking damage on vehicles, obtaining parts, ordering paint materials, checking in and returning parts, and working closely with production and parts managers to keep them updated with supplements and job progress. It’s easy to see why she’s called the "facilitator." Like Rose, Castleberry says she likes being on the go and keeping things moving. (It’s a good thing she feels this way — or she’d be in a heap of trouble!)

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• Jerry Damen, owner of Exhibition Automotive, located in Kent, Wash., has been in business since 1968 and has employed female prep technicians in the past. What are his views on women in the shop? "From a man’s viewpoint, women are just so different. They have that certain focus and attention to detail."

• Donna West, co-owner and chief estimator at Southtowne Auto Rebuild, holds an ASE certificate in estimating and says "women are good at customer relations because they’re patient."

• Diane Huddleson, co-owner of Auto Color World in Seattle, says women are good communicators and tend to empathize with customers.

Note: None of these remarks insinuate that women are better than men — just that they’re different.

Available Opportunities
Many shop owners welcome and value women in areas of the industry besides administration. We’ve taken a look at parts-managing, estimating, parts-facilitating, paint-mixing and prep-technician roles, but here are a few other jobs well suited to ladies as well as men: auto-claims adjuster, production manager, auto-parts dealer, PBE jobber, detail technician, autobody repair technician and painter.

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(I must mention that I couldn’t find a single woman who was employed as a repair technician; though I was given several leads on female painters, I never made contact with any of them.)

Why So Few?
The opportunities are definitely out there, so why aren’t women snapping them up?

To answer this question, I looked up two autobody technology instructors from different colleges in my area. Each of them have either owned or managed shops and, between them, have 57 years of industry experience.

I found out from them that the average autobody class has 18 students and maybe two of those are females. Why so few? Says Mark Millbauer, long-time instructor at Green River Community College in Auburn, Wash.: "During the formative junior-high and high-school years, parents, teachers and counselors aren’t promoting the automotive trades. The emphasis is on degrees and corporate employment."

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He also says there’s a misconception that the automotive trades aren’t skilled. "We need to promote our industry to society and make them aware of what we do," he says. "Most people really don’t know what goes on in a shop. They drop off their vehicles, which disappear through the bay door and come back out fixed." Millbauer also mentioned the need for shop owners and employees to get involved with cleaning up our industry’s image.

Steve Ford, instructor at South Seattle Community College, says while female enrollment is low, it’s gradually increasing because females are now pursuing more non-traditional work.

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And both instructors told me that the ladies who do complete the programs usually become successfully employed and tend to focus on painting as opposed to body work because it’s easier, less dirty and more creative. Also, women tend to have "an eye for color" that men don’t.

In speaking with a woman who currently manages an autobody supply store in Auburn, Wash., I received yet another opinion about the education system as it relates to the industry — and her opinion comes with hands-on experience since she has a certificate in autobody from Skagit Valley College in Northern Washington and worked as a bodyperson and painter for four years in the early ‘80s.

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What does Lynn Van Allen think should be done to attract more women to this industry? She says the education system in our country should focus less on traditional male/female roles and, instead, find out what a child’s skills are and focus his or her education in that direction.

Willing — and Waiting
After all that, I’d like to put in my own two cents: I believe women need to know the collision repair industry is ready and willing to place them in production jobs — that if a woman is strong-willed, has a desire to try something new, has a good sense of humor and has a true love of cars, she’ll do well working in a shop.

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"If you want to do something bad enough, you’re going to be good at it," says Damen. "When you love what you do, the of rest of it happens."

But it won’t happen until we do a better job promoting ourselves. We need to get the message out there that we want to make women a part of the collision repair industry. We also need to change the public’s perception of how our industry views women — that we no longer see women as posters to be hung on walls in the shop but, rather, as employees to be valued by the shop.

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Kelly Skahan is the office manager and a prep technician at Patrick Enterprises in Pacific, Wash.

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