Jacqueline Nanney hasn’t seen the inside of a classroom in about nine months.
But the senior at Maplewood High School is still taking classes to learn how to be an auto mechanic. On a recent weekday, she was performing a vehicle check in a virtual shop through an online simulator.
“This is as close as it gets, this system right here. You’re still working on cars, just computer-wise,” says Nanney. “You’re moving a mouse, but it still guides you through things that we’ll learn at school.”
The simulator, at first glance, looks like a wild stretch of the imagination. But it essentially puts the ins and outs of an automobile on to the computer screen. It even mimics the noise of a broken-down vehicle when a student forgets to virtually connect an engine cord or change a dead battery.
For five years, the Bridgestone-sponsored Maplewood High School Automotive Training Center has been preparing students for jobs in the automotive industry. Nanney, as one of the few women in the program, is part of an ongoing effort to propel more women and girls into the auto repair field.
Strong enough to work as a mechanic
Nanney is a rising star in the program. She’s one of the few students who actually works part-time inside of a Firestone Complete Auto Care Center, which is owned by Bridgestone.
She says part of her motivation is getting rid of the idea that women aren’t strong enough to be mechanics.
“You don’t see a lot of women working on cars physically. This is why I picked it,” says Nanney. “Some people have their own opinion on why some women shouldn’t work on cars.”
According to the U.S. Labor Department, just 2% of automotive service technicians and mechanics are women. This is out of the nearly 880,000 workers employed in the occupation.
“The truth is … I would have thought by now in 2020, that we would have about 40% females in this industry,” says Twjuana Williams, who heads the Maplewood High School training center. “But we don’t.”
The disparity, however, isn’t because women don’t care to be in the field. A lot of it has to do with sexism in the auto repair industry, Williams says.
“I have seen women come into the field and they fizzle out from the pressure,” says Williams. “Because men, when they don’t want you in their field — quite frankly, they can make it hard on you.”
In her full-fledged mechanic days, Williams says, coworkers would sabotage her toolbox, undo the work she completed and assign her all the heavy loads during the work shift — like lifting 100-pound auto clutches.
Now, she says she’s intentional about creating a culture of gender equality in her own classroom.
In the past few years, she says, there’s even been a pattern of male students learning from young women who are better at installing car parts.
‘Add a new light’
“The female portion of it is the most exciting part [of the Maplewood program],” says Chuck Bowles, the local regional manager at Bridgestone.
Bowles says that once women get into the auto repair field, at least at Bridgestone, it’s not uncommon for them to outperform their male colleagues.
Plus, training and adding more women to the field will help companies build more trust with customers, he says.
“They add a new light to the automotive repair business that we’ve needed for years and years and years,” says Bowles. “Because, let’s face it, the reputation … is not so good for the male in the automotive repair industry.”
Still, despite the effort to diversity the industry through Maplewood’s small auto repair program, progress has been fairly slow.
More than 100 students have graduated from the Maplewood program since it began in 2015. Bridgestone Retail Operations has hired 39 of them.
The majority have been males. In the spring, only four of the 22 program graduates were young women — though that is still better than the national average.
“Five years into our program at Maplewood H.S., we know we are just chipping the surface of creating a more diverse pipeline of automotive technicians,” says Bowles. “Fixing this disparity is complex, but we start with one-on-one recruiting beginning with elementary school career days to show young women that this is a viable, rewarding career path for them.”
But he says the program is just one step to creating a stronger job pipeline that prioritizes gender diversity. The field will also have to overcome longstanding gender stereotypes and a lack of awareness that auto repair is a job for women, says Williams.
“The more you see women in the shop running the business, I think that you’ll draw more females into the industry,” she says.