Ms. Mechanic

by Pat Crocker

"Hey lady, where's the teacher?" is often the initial greeting that Vermont Technical College Automotive Technology Instructor Betsy Hoffman receives from unsuspecting students. After overcoming their initial shock, she reports that her gender goes virtually unnoticed. Hoffman, now Chair of the Automotive Technology Department, shares many tales of trial and triumph in her chosen career in what is almost universally thought of as strictly a "man's field." But, things are changing, and changing fast.

The average auto has more sophisticated electronic and computer equipment than NASA's early space capsules. Once thought of as a field that required more "brawn than brain," automotive technology requires a high degree of skill, including a solid foundation in math and physics. Male and female mechanics agree that today's high-tech computer-controlled engines are more mentally that physically challenging. Cars today are hooked to computers where sophisticated diagnostic equipment helps technicians pinpoint mechanical or electronic problems. Parts often weigh less than a pound and even male mechanics rely on lifts, levers, and teamwork to manipulate those that are cumbersome.

If, as the old saying goes, "necessity is the mother of invention," in Hoffman's case necessity also gave birth to a career. "My car kept breaking down, I never had enough money to fix it because I didn't have a money-making skill," says Hoffman. "I didn't know a thing about cars when I started, but I was stubborn and excited about learning. Two years later, I had a skill I thought I could use for a few years while I decided what I really wanted to do. That was fifteen years ago," she adds.

Today, Hoffman is the first woman in the U.S. to hold the prestigious Automotive Service Excellence L1 Advanced Engine Performance Certification. She sees enormous opportunities for women in the automotive field and fewer and fewer obstacles to their success in it. Yet, according to the Department of Labor, only 5,000 out of 854,000 auto mechanics are women. And only a handful of garages are owned and operated by women.

The June 1993 Woman's Day magazine reported that women in nontraditional jobs may actually earn more than men in those fields. In 1992 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that female health workers, licensed practical nurses, recordkeepers, and lab technicians earned only 83 percent of what their male counterparts did. So did elementary school teachers. Bookkeepers did a little better at 84 percent and counselors, secretaries and postal workers at 90, 92 and 95 percent respectively. Female mechanics, however, make 105 percent of what men do. Female electrical and electronic equipment repair workers receive a whopping 109 percent of what their "fellow" workers do. In this case, at least, gender appears to be a unique financial advantage.

Gail and Ross Anderson, former owners of Nordic Ford and Toyota in Burlington, also know that women are missing a world of opportunity by ruling out certain types of employment. Through the work of their Nordic Educational Trust, they try to encourage both young women and men to pursue studies in automotive technology and other technical fields.

Begun in 1991, the Nordic Educational Trust offers two or three scholarships annually to students who have a strong desire and great potential to succeed in a technical field. Since 1991, 14 full scholarships and three smaller grants have been awarded. Two Nordic Trust scholarship recipients are currently attending Vermont Technical College and both are women -- Rita Gendron is an automotive technology major; Rebecca Hazen studies architecture. The scholarships cover tuition and room and board at two-year technical colleges. Although the Andersons have an obvious interest in automotive technology, recipients have also majored in the fields of agriculture, engineering, architectural drafting and computer technology.

Scholarships are restricted to residents of Chittenden and Franklin Counties. Students must complete an application and personal interview. You can write to: The Nordic Educational Trust, P.O. Box 545, Shelburne, VT 05482 for more information.

And, what about job prospects after completing a two-year program for automotive technology? A story by Yvonne Daley in the Sunday, April 30 edition of The Rutland Herald tells the tale of one Mark McGee, who graduated last May from the University of Vermont with a degree in philosophy. Unable to find employment in his field, McGee put a sign along the roadside advertising "Philosopher for Hire." Asked for his commentary on the plight of this young man, Robert Ware of Vermont's Department of Employment and Training said ... "The job market has improved for professionals and the college-educated ... but employers today are looking for people with a strong math and science background more than liberal arts." He points out that trained mechanics are being hired at $40,000 a year after completing two-year training programs, while people like McGee with a four-year degree are having a hard time finding work.

c 1995, Women in Technology News, Vol. 11, No. 2, Spring 1995

Return to WIT Home PageReturn to WIT Home Page