Printed on: March 29, 2013

Despite low numbers, women excel in mechanical jobs

By Ruth Brown
rbrown@postregister.com

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of a three-part Post Register series looking at women in the workplace.

When Lori Tyler walked into her diesel technology shop class Tuesday, she unclipped the orange flower in her hair, removed her gold hoop earrings and tied back her blond hair.

The 37-year-old is one of only two women among 42 students enrolled in Eastern Idaho Technical College's diesel and auto technology program.

Chrystal Docken, 25, is the other female in the program.

Tyler and Docken are among a growing number of women who are breaking the mold in what has been a male-dominated field.

Although women are proving they can handle mechanical jobs as well or better than their male counterparts, their pay still lags behind men who are performing the same jobs.

Docken has been interested in mechanics since she was 7 years old. Teaching, nursing and other traditionally female occupations never captured her interest.

"I like getting my hands dirty," Docken said.

In 2009, the year for which the most current data is available, about 3,000 women were working as diesel mechanics nationwide. Another 14,000 women were working as automotive service technicians. There also were 18,000 welders and fewer than 1,000 small-engine mechanics, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

Of the 25 students enrolled in EITC's welding program, only one is female.

In 2009, females working in welding, soldering and brazing accounted for roughly 4 percent of the field nationwide. By comparison, female diesel engine specialists made up only 0.8 percent of the field, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Although the Idaho Department of Labor does not keep such statistics, spokesman Will Jenson said manual labor jobs always have been dominated by men.

"Most occupations with more women than men are nonstrenuous jobs," Jenson said.

Female-dominated jobs in 2011 included insurance and finance representatives, real estate agents, educators and health care workers, he said.

In working to become a mechanic, Tyler is following a dream.

"It's a perfect fit for me, and I'm so excited to do this after so many years," Tyler said.

Before going back to school, she was a sales clerk at Walmart.

Tyler wants to set an example for her 14-year-old daughter, Katherine, who is confined to a wheelchair.

"My daughter has spina bifida, so how can I be an example to her if I don't follow my dreams?" Tyler said. "She will have more limitations than I can ever imagine. So, yes, it's a male-dominated field, but I'm not worried about it."

Instructor Don Martin has taught in EITC's diesel mechanics program for nearly five years. Tyler and Docken are his students.

Female students in his classes throughout the years not only have proven they can do the job, he said, but often do it better than the male students. Women have more patience in the diagnostic and technical aspects of the job than some of his male students, he said.

"I've never had to second-guess any of the girls. They get things done," Martin said. "I've had to talk to the guys, but I've never had to talk to any of my girls about getting work done."

Despite that, women in the field still can expect to be paid less than their male counterparts -- especially in Idaho.

According to the Idaho Department of Labor, in 2011, the average median weekly pay for women was about 78.5 percent of what men were paid performing the same job.

Nationwide, women are paid 82.2 percent of what men make in a week, Jenson said.

Wilma Scott, who teaches workplace skills in the EITC auto and diesel program, as well as managing the office, said female students have to work harder than their male counterparts.

"It's almost like (women) have more to prove because guys are so accepted in this industry," Scott said. "When the girls go out to apply to these jobs, they really have to prove that they can do the job."

Tyler knows what it feels like when a man doubts her mechanical skills.

"If I am having a hard time doing something, the guy will come over and say 'Oh, let me do it,' but then he can't get it, either," she said. "So I think then they realize it's not just me."

Scott, who has been working in the EITC program for 18 years, said all of the women who have come through it have found jobs in area diesel shops.

Docken recently was hired as a technician at Kenworth Sales Co., a local semitruck dealer.

The diesel and auto program averages about two female students a year, Scott said, while another one or two women enroll in the welding program each year.

Martin remains an advocate for woman joining the auto and diesel mechanics industry.

"We will be a better profession if we have more women," Martin said.

Ruth Brown can be reached at 542-6750. Follow on Twitter: @ruthbrown1.

Women in nontraditional roles

In 2009 (the latest data available), females accounted for:

About 4 percent of the nation's welders

About 3.7 percent of construction workers

About 0.5 percent of roofers

About 2.2 percent of electricians

About 1.3 percent of plumbers

About 2 percent of mining machine operators

About 0.8 percent of diesel mechanics

About 1.8 percent of automotive service technicians.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor

Women in the future workforce

Between 2006 and 2016, the labor force is projected to grow to 12.8 million people. About 49 percent will be women.

In 2016, women are expected to make up 46.5 percent of the estimated 164.2 million people in the labor force.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor

Blue-collar jobs

The median pay in 2010 for diesel service technicians and mechanics was $19.64 per hour, or $40,850 per year.

The median pay in 2010 for automotive service technicians and mechanics was $17.21 per hour, or $35,790 per year.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor