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Women automotive, machine shop students smash stereotypes

Lesley Good holds pieces of her truck in College of Marin’s automotive technology department on the Indian Valley campus in Novato.
Alan Dep — Marin Independent Journal

Kyra Carson turns a wheel on the lathe, bringing a chisel into contact with a foot-long aluminum cylinder. As the cylinder spins, the chisel shaves minute slivers from its surface, sending curly silver ringlets of metal flying.

“The first time I came into the machine shop, I was like, ‘What is this weird place?’” said Carson. “Now it’s second nature to me.”

Carson is studying machine and metals technology at the Indian Valley campus of the College of Marin. The Mill Valley resident is one of a number of women who have opted to study nontraditional careers such as auto technology, auto collision repair and welding at the Novato campus.

“A woman can really make a good living in this field,” said Lesley Good, who is in the auto collision program. In this program, students learn to repair dents and paint cars, among other things. “It’s a man’s world, but a lot more women are doing it.”

Good, a Novato resident, said an entry-level employee in the auto collision field can expect to start at about $20 an hour, moving up to $35 or $40 an hour at the journeyman level. “Auto body people make a lot of money, but you have to be good at it.”

Auto service technician jobs — positions once known as “auto mechanic”— are also remunerative and plentiful.

Good opportunities

At present, there are 701,100 jobs in the automotive service technician and mechanic category. These positions are expected to grow 9 percent between 2012 and 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Job opportunities for qualified jobseekers should be very good,” according to the bureau’s website.

With regard to welding, “Skilled welders with up-to-date training should have good job opportunities,” according to the website.

In the auto shop, Good moves the lever on the stretcher upward, then slides a piece of a fender into a slot on the machine. She lowers the lever smoothly, but with considerable force.

“You can do this with anything you want, then place it back where you want it to go,” the student said.

Metal-forming tools like the stretcher allow workers to add a gentle radius to metal by either shrinking or stretching the metal. They are used for various purposes, including forming patches for windshield frames.

“My time here is almost done, and I just got a job building Le Mans race cars from the ground up,” Good said. “I start with a wood and foam shell.” She didn’t want to name the firm, but said it’s in Benicia.

“It’s not a job – it’s fun. It’s very special for me,” she said.

“The automotive field is recession-proof,” said Ron Palmer, who heads up the Career Education department and also is an automotive technology and automotive collision repair instructor at the college.

Palmer said this is the case “especially on the collision side. Cars don’t stop hitting each other, and it’s insurance money.” On the automotive side, “workers with high-tech skills are in demand,” Palmer said. “You have to have computer skills to be in this profession.”

Variety of options

Presently, there are about 250 students in the auto collision courses, and between two and five of them are women, said Mark Barrall, an instructor in auto collision, electronics and electric cars at the college. The numbers are similar on the auto technician side, he said.

There are about 125 students in the welding classes and 150 in the machine shop classes, with two to five women students in each program, said Arthur Lutz, a machine shop instructor at the college.

The programs started decades ago, Lutz said.

The college offers a variety of options for students. Automotive collision students can earn a skills certificate in painting, mechanical, structural or nonstructural repair, get a masters career certificate in automotive collision repair or pursue a two-year associate degree.

Students in the auto technology program can study for seven specialized skills certificates, four career certificates, an Associate of Science degree in automotive technology and a transfer to CSU in industrial technology.

LED fixtures

Carson enrolled in the machine shop program because she wanted to start her own business making LED light fixtures. Presently, she is making such fixtures for friends.

“He (Lutz) has taken classes to local machine shops as field trips so we can see these shops in the real world cranking out lots of parts, and there are machine shops in Marin where graduates of the program have gotten work,” Carson said.

The same is true of the automotive program, an employer said.

“For the five years I’ve been here, we have hired graduates from the program and they have done very well,” said Bryan Anton, parts and service director at Marin Luxury Cars in Corte Madera.

“We have had very good luck with them, and also the ones from ITT Technical Institute. We’ve had good luck with utilizing both those resources for new technicians,” Anton said.

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