It's an astonishing statistic: The number of female auto technicians certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence nearly quadrupled from 1988-96, rising from 556 to 2,041.
Figures from the U.S. Department of Labor bear out this trend, though not so dramatically. In 1994 there were 9,000 female auto mechanics, and the number had grown to 11,000 by 1996. That's a 22 percent increase in just two years. For mechanics in body repair, the 1994 figure was 1,000, and by 1996 it had doubled to 2,000.
Obviously, these are still very small numbers - 403,214 auto repair technicians currently are certified by the institute - but the point is how quickly the number of women is growing.
The reasons may seem obvious.
First, there's the general growth in the number of women entering traditionally male professions. It's happening everywhere.
Second, carmakers, dealers and shop owners are marketing more to women as they have recognized the importance of the female customer base. So it makes good business sense to have more women on the scene to interact with and relate to female customers.
But another factor is cited by experts such as Nancy Guzik, a director of the institute in Herndon, Va. Guzik says, 'The field of auto repair has become so much more high-tech now, and that has opened up more doors for women.'
The past perception, says Guzik, was that auto mechanics required 'a lot more brawn.' Now, the job has become much more technical and computer-oriented.
A woman's touch
The scene is the customer lounge of Joe Ricci Five Star Collision in Harper Woods, Mich. Maybe I'm looking too hard, but I do detect signs of a 'woman's touch.' First of all, Maury Povich is on TV; today's show is about makeovers.
Hmm. Makeovers are what they do at a body shop, too, right? And sure enough, on the wall to my right hangs a framed group of photographs showing 'before' (smashed) and 'after' (smooth) views of customer vehicles.
Then I notice the magazine selection on the coffee table: two issues of Mademoiselle.
I meet the body shop manager, Connie Daniell, 31, who, with her mane of blond hair and long, manicured fingernails, just doesn't look like a car guy. But she is. And so are the other 'guys' on her staff, including Andrea, Christal and Debi. In fact, all of the shop's 11 managers, estimators and service advisers are women.
Daniell didn't always want to work with cars. 'I wanted to be a beautician!' she says with a hearty laugh. (Makeovers again!) But she started out washing cars and portering in her dad's shop, and now she runs an operation with 27 employees - a direct repair shop for seven insurance companies that does $4 million in business per year with about 200 customers a month.
Of those customers, Daniell says, 80 percent are women. She says that, more and more, it's the woman in the household who takes care of the car. 'And they seem pleased right away that there are women here,' Daniell says. 'I have found that the female customers can relate to women - they've admitted that. They feel they can trust women.'
So what makes women ideally suited for such work? Like the other experts, Daniell points to computers as a factor. 'Women are good with computers,' she says. There are six separate computer systems in her shop, and Daniell feels electronic expertise will be even more important in the future.
Other skills I hear mentioned over and over by Daniell and her staff are people skills. Words like 'teamwork,' 'tact,' 'delicacy,' 'family' and 'caring' keep coming up. These skills are utilized with customers, obviously, but they also come in handy when an estimate writer has to bring a problem to a body man. (Yes, for now, the techs in the Joe Ricci shop are all men.) Daniell has seen more resentment between males in such a situation, and she says that two former male writers 'just couldn't do it.'
But women having good people skills does sound like a soft stereotype. What about technical knowledge of automobiles? What about getting their hands dirty? No problem there, says Daniell. Speaking of her assistant body shop manager, Andrea Jurkowski, and her head estimator, Debi Smith, she says, 'They know what it takes to fix a car; they've been in a shop for so long. They'll polish, they can stripe, tint windows, put decals on.'
Wally Dombrowski, a 29-year veteran auto body and frame technician, agrees. Of his female colleagues, he says, 'They're very professional, they know the auto- mobile, they have good rapport with the customers and the insurance companies.' He won't speak for all the other body men, but says he's never heard them say that the women 'don't know what they're talking about.'
None of the women at Joe Ricci Five Star Collision seems to have had any trouble breaking into the auto repair field. Daniell says, 'It's extremely hard to find qualified people - male or female - in this trade. Any woman with experience can get a job.'
Tina Massey knew nothing about cars when she answered a sly ad for a 'business position.'
Massey, who's 26, is starting out as a receptionist, cashier and secretary, and she seems eager to learn all she can about cars and body repair.
Service adviser Christal Champion signed up after seeing a want ad for 'office help.' (Daniell's eyes twinkle as she recalls the 'deception' in her ad.)
But after just seven months, the 22-year-old, who had been a cashier and a cab dispatcher, is now the first person a customer deals with at the shop.
Says Champion: 'It's the best job I ever had.'
Wendy Warren Keebler is a free-lance writer and editor in Ann Arbor, Mich.