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Heart Wrenchers Auto Club takes women beyond the driver’s seat

Natasha Cronin is a first-year student in the Automotive Technology Department at Skyline College in San Bruno. She and her classmates are standing under the raised body of a dilapidated red pickup. Their task for today: to learn how this truck works by dismantling it, piece by rusty piece.

Cronin got into cars in high school, which wasn’t that long ago -- she’s 18. She says she hung out a lot with friends who were auto enthusiasts, out on the sidewalk or in the garage, watching them fix their cars. Eventually, she decided to try her own hand at it.

When she graduated last year, working with cars was the only thing she could see herself doing. And though she already knows how to change her own oil and install a stereo system, she’s learning much more in this class.

“[Learning] what it’s actually like to use the tools, to actually see the parts. You know, not just pictures and diagrams,” Cronin says. “And gettting really messy! It’s real life, you know. It’s great.”

As her classmates look on, Cronin attempts to loosen a large, rusted nut on the underside of the truck. She puts all her force behind a long-armed wrench, but the nut just won’t budge. Cronin’s professor, Julia Johnson, walks over with an electric tool called an impact gun.

“Natasha, that’ll take you several days. Use this,” Johnson says, handing her the impact gun with its long cord.

“Using a power tool!” Cronin crows, as she applies the impact gun. A thunderous ratatatatat echoes through the shop.

This scene unfolds so naturally, it makes it hard to remember that both of these women are anomalies. Everyone else in the shop today is male, which reflects the industry nationwide. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up less than 2% of all auto technicians and mechanics, and hold just about 24% of all jobs in the auto industry as a whole.

Professor Julia Johnson knows this well. She holds a tenure-track position teaching auto tech at Skyline, but she started here as a student, just like Cronin. Back then, in 2004, there were very few women students in the department.

“It was usually me and then another female. The next semester it would be a different female- the one previously didn’t continue,” says Johnson. “So, I was the only one to graduate in ten years. There was one before me, ten years, and ten years before her was another one.”

Despite coming in with a need for remedial math classes, and very little mechanical knowledge, she stuck it out.

“I rounded off bolts, broke things, put my shocks on upside down, but I found out that it’s not that hard,” Johnson says.  

Johnson credits the supportive atmosphere at Skyline for her success. Her mentor, department head Rick Escalambre, says that support is deliberate.

“Our whole program is built around a family atmosphere. And regardless of man or woman, were gonna treat everyone the same,” Escalambre says. “A lot of the old industry is still older males. I think there’s also a thing that this is a grunt job, where you’re doing a lot of heavy duty work. Today, so much of it is with the mind, understanding technology.”
Escalambre saw that Johnson had both the mind and the drive to succeed in auto tech. So after she graduated in 2007, Escalambre hired her to teach.

Given the obvious lack of women, she wanted to make some changes. So she got some funding from the school, and started actively recruiting women for the department.

“[I] came up with my own flyers, my own message, and started hitting the high schools,” Johnson recalls. “CalWORKS meetings, mothers’ clubs, pretty much anybody that would listen, and a few people that wouldn't listen. And I just told them ‘You are welcome here, we want you here. You're not just welcome here, I want you to come to school here. The shop owners will hire you, this is a career you can do.’”

Her efforts paid off: three women enrolled that first semester, then nine the next. But based on her experience of seeing women leave the program before completion, she wanted to find a way to retain them.

“So I got them all together in a room, gave them pizza, and I said: let's form a club,” says Johnson.

That’s how the Heart Wrenchers Auto Club started, in 2010. The women wanted to use the club as a way to help others. So the Heart Wrenchers started doing free car repairs for low-income people, and teaching Girl Scouts and other youth basic auto maintenance. But the club is more than a way to do community service-- it’s a vital support system for its members.

Gelina Aquilina is the current president of the Heart Wrenchers. She says fixing cars runs in her family: her dad was a mechanic, and cars have always been her passion. She took auto shop in high school, and after graduating 14 years ago, wanted to study auto tech. But she says something held her back.

“There weren’t women here. There wasn’t a club. There wasn’t a support group for women in a male-dominated trade,” Aquilina says. “I was intimidated, and I didn’t do it.”

So she worked at a series of office jobs, then had a child, but fixing cars was always in the back of her mind. In 2012, she decided to pursue her dream and go back to school. She’s now in her final year of the certificate program at Skyline, and is already working in the field, at a shop in Mountain View. She’s happy with where she works now, but she’s definitely experienced sexism on the job.

“I used to work in a shop that was horrible,” she says. “And I was a great lube tech, but they wanted me to wash the floors in the bathrooms.”

Aquilina says it wasn’t that her skills were lacking.

“I would wrench them under the table. I could do three cars and they’d do one and they hated it. And so they took me off of the rack and they put me on cleaning duty. And it happened just all the time.”

Talking about her experience with the other Heart Wrenchers helped her make the decision to leave that job. She says it was important to be with people who understood the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated field.

Now, Aquilina says her goals are evolving.

“I wanted to be a mechanic, I wanted to be a tech, I wanted to wrench,” she says. “And then I started tutoring… and I realized I’m pretty good at teaching this stuff.”

Just like her mentor, Julia Johnson. Johnson’s model of recruitment and mentorship is slowly spreading to automotive departments at other schools as she gives workshops and talks around the country. And she says that at least in the Bay Area, many auto shops are eager to welcome the women who graduate from Skyline.

“I had a friend who 20 years ago couldn't get anyone to hire her. No one would take her on,” she says. “And now, I've got more opportunities than I have female students in the shops.”

Students like Natasha Cronin, who says, “I really want to turn this into a career. I really am passionate about what I’m doing here, so I’m trying to see where it’ll take me.”

With the help of Johnson and the Heart Wrenchers, that could be very far indeed.