In an era where vehicles practically drive themselves, you’d think the automotive trade might have evolved with the technology. But female mechanics are still almost as rare as flying cars.
Elaine Lagasse is hoping to change that.
A graduate of Red River College’s Automotive Service Educational program, Lagasse is also RRC’s first female automotive instructor. She sees the number of female students walking in – or perhaps kicking down – the door of the Automotive Technician Certificate program, and it’s not pretty.
“We probably average three or four per cent women,” she says. “So (in a program with 100 students), that’s three or four women. The numbers are very, very low.”
Lagasse was the only woman in her program’s class of 2004. She graduated with top marks and received the Ken Preboy Memorial Award before moving on to become a Red Seal Automotive Technician for four years, then landed her current position as an RRC instructor in 2008.
“There’s no reason why the numbers haven’t picked up more than they have,” Lagasse says of the program’s relative lack of female students. “I think the big thing is just breaking the barrier and realizing that there’s nothing that makes (the automotive trade) more suited for men versus women.”
Mathematics, diagnostics and electrical are just some of the skills required of automotive technicians in the ever-changing industry, which continues to become more computerized. When women enter the trade, they often feel out of place and judged, Lagasse says. Fortunately, that often pushes them to work harder and excel.
“They usually succeed because they do feel that extra pressure that they have to prove themselves. It’s not something they should have to deal with, being judged differently, but until we get the numbers up, that’s going to be the reality.”
Lagasse had no idea she wanted to be an automotive tech until her car broke down on the way to university one day. She realized she could either drop hundreds of dollars to get it fixed – and not understand what she was paying for – or she could fix it herself.
She chose the latter. After picking up the service manual for her vehicle, she was able to do the repairs – and discovered how much she loved fixing cars.
Before Lagasse knew it, she had a part-time job at Super Lube and had left university – and her dream of becoming a personal trainer – behind to pursue an automotive apprenticeship at RRC.
“It was more of a need than an interest at first, but it worked out well,” she says.
The apprenticeship program allowed Lagasse to spend five or six months in the workforce – in her case, in the shop at Murray Chevrolet – followed by eight weeks of classes at RRC. She repeated the process until she completed all four levels of the program.
Her experience at RRC exceeded her expectations and prepared her for the trade. After a total of nearly eight years with Murray Chevrolet – she worked there while she was in school and for four years after she graduated – she moved on to teach at RRC, where she’s now colleagues with some of her former instructors.
Teaching, Lagasse says, is the best of both worlds: “I still get to be involved in the trade, dealing with the technology and the car itself, without having to deal with the day in, day out, constant grind of the job.”
Grind indeed. Most technicians get paid on a flat rate system, so if you don’t have work – or you take too long on a job – your income can suffer.
Also, the shop conditions and materials used can take a toll on your health over the course of many years; Lagasse says she was glad to have landed her RRC gig before she had her two sons, ages four and two.
“That’s the thing too: If you get pregnant, you can’t really work in the shop,” says Lagasse, of yet another challenge female automotive techs face.
But she stands by her notion that nothing – or no one – should deter women from entering the trade, and even has advice for the three or four per cent she hopes will soon grow.
“Just don’t worry about what guys think,” Lagasse says. “If it’s your interest, stick with it; learn as much as you can and find the support from other females in the trade. Put in the time and effort and ignore the doubts that people are going to have about you. It’s well worth it in the end.”
— Profile by Lindsey Ward (Creative Communications, 2004)