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They may be in the minority, but female mechanics can drive change and map out new opportunities in the car industry.
Story: Joanna White. Photos: Shannon Morris October 2018.
There’s a big, bright billboard featuring ‘Rosie the Riveter’, a cultural icon of the women war workers of the 1940s, out the front of Braeside Automotive in the grey industrial landscape of Melbourne’s south east.
Behind the factory's doors, mother-and-daughter team Jillian and Genevieve Edwards are akin to pin-up girls for many young women who hope to become mechanics.
It’s a busy day in the workshop — and there’s not a bloke in sight.
Jillian and Genevieve Edwards
Jillian receives at least one call a day from young women looking for apprenticeships. Her business is still too young to accommodate them but, in the future, she hopes to do her bit for the ‘campaign’ and make Rosie proud.
Genevieve, 21, moves confidently between the cars she’s servicing and updates Jillian on her progress. There are several other cars lined up out the back — it’s a busy day in the workshop — and there’s not a bloke in sight.
Jillian, a petite middle-aged woman with a marketing background, says she used to drive Genevieve to and from her job as an apprentice mechanic and spent many hours waiting for her to clock off. She saw first-hand how the business operated and thought she “could do a whole lot better”.
Women ‘on tools’ are hardly a new thing.
A timely divorce settlement prompted Jillian to invest in the auto repair shop and she admits that, apart from the basics, she knew nothing about cars.
More than 18 months down the track, and with a growing number of loyal customers, Jillian plans to expand the business and is studying Parts Interpretation and Automotive Business Management through MEGT Australia. Mario Pannacci, her supervisor in the self-paced, on-the-job training course, is an important mentor to both Jillian and Genevieve.
This is not the first time the business has attracted interest and Jillian is a little bemused. After all, women ‘on tools’ are hardly a new thing. Before becoming Queen, Princess Elizabeth trained as a mechanic and truck driver as part of the war effort. And in Rosie’s day, countless women worked in factories and shipyards, producing munitions and war supplies.
Jillian and Genevieve have become role models for women seeking careers in the automotive industry
‘’We like to educate people, particularly women, about their cars because it empowers them,” Jillian says. Genevieve runs monthly car-care workshops to give customers the chance to learn and work on their own vehicles.
Despite workplace change, women like Jillian and Genevieve are still the minority. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2016 just 1.4 per cent of motor mechanics were women.
From an industry perspective, it makes sense to have more women involved in the design, manufacturing and servicing of vehicles. Women buy more new cars than ever before and influence more than 80 per cent of all vehicle purchase decisions, a 2017 Bauer Media report reveals. Yet the same report also said women felt disempowered when it came to buying and servicing these vehicles.
The executive director of automotive industry body Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce (VACC), Geoff Gwilym, believes diversity of culture and gender is good for business. He’d like to see more women entering the auto industry. “Apart from wartime, the industry has struggled to attract women,” Geoff says.
He doesn’t necessarily see this as a criticism of the industry, but a reflection of the career paths young women are choosing. VACC regularly attends school career events and its Women in Automotive Program is working to support women in the industry and raise their profile.
The changing nature of the automotive industry is making career options more approachable and accessible for everyone.
Geoff says that with a skills shortage in auto mechanics and workplaces becoming more ‘politically correct’, there’s never a better time for female school leavers to consider a career in the industry.
“As cars become more technologically advanced, and with the emergence of electric cars, there will be a lot of diagnostic-type roles opening up and further exciting opportunities for women,” Geoff says.
These are the girls who grew up tinkering with cars in their backyard.
Statistics at the pre-apprenticeship level are more encouraging. The chief executive officer of Kangan Institute, Trevor Schwenke, says the changing nature of the automotive industry is playing a part in “making career options more approachable and accessible for everyone”. This change is reflected in the increase in female enrolments in automotive-related courses.
Bairnsdale apprectice Amber Gabelich
Between 2008 and 2017, Kangan Institute saw female student enrolments in certificate and diploma courses in its Centre for Automotive Excellence increase by almost 50 per cent.
The young women graduating from Kangan and other pre-apprentice programs are making their presence felt. These are the girls who grew up tinkering with cars in their backyard.
In 2016 just 1.4 per cent of motor mechanics were women.
From a young age, Amber Gabelich loved painting and, as she grew older, “got really involved with cars”. Her combined passions led her to a career in automotive spray painting.
She is studying at Kangan Institute and working as an apprentice at GP Motors in Bairnsdale. Her goal is a career in restoration and custom painting and after placing third in the vehicle painting category of the WorldSkills Australia competition in Sydney in June, her pathway is clear. Medallists have the chance to represent Australia at the WorldSkills international competition in Russia next year and can apply for a range of local and international scholarships.
Yvette Thompson, 23, is another young mechanic making her mark. Her motivating force is her grandfather, who passed away when she was 18.
“I grew up with my grandfather working on cars. He was a bit of a backyard fixer. After he passed away, I didn’t have that outlet any more so he kind of motivated me to go in to the trade,” she says.
Yvette started her career working with light vehicles before qualifying as a diesel mechanic. She works in the fleet management division of the Victorian Country Fire Authority, based at Mount Evelyn.
“The guys have been very welcoming and supportive. They don’t care if you’re male or female, as long as you’re prepared to work hard and you want to learn,” she says.
Amber Gabelich placed third in the vehicle painting category of WorldSkills Austalia
Rosie the Riveter was the star of a US World War II campaign aimed at recruiting women to volunteer for wartime service in factories. They were needed to produce munitions and war supplies as male workers joined the military. Rosie’s image was used on billboards and in magazines. Between 1940 and 1945 the female percentage of the US workforce increased from 27 per cent to 37 per cent. Songs and movies were written about her, but it is unclear whether there was ever a “real” Rosie.