By Michael David Quinn
In more and more auto repair shops across the country, there’s a change taking place – something more revolutionary than electric cars or hybrids. Women.
With the U.S. auto industry back on its feet, the demand for well–trained auto mechanics is on the rise. This is opening the garage door for the small but growing number of women attracted to the grease, the grime, the heavy–lifting, the sense of accomplishment – and the salary (as much as $56,000 and more in New York City) of this traditionally male occupation.
Bronx native Grace Claudio is part of this new generation of coverall–clad women. As a teenager she loved anything that required working with her hands, sometimes helping a building super as he fixed plumbing or installed sheetrock. Today, at 24, she is a much–valued "B Technician" at BMW of Manhattan â€” or as Grace describes it “a doctor, but for cars.” That transformation was made possible by the Automotive Technology program at Bronx Community College.
BCC Auto Tech is the only program of its kind in the entire 23–school CUNY system, which explains why it draws students from as far away as Staten Island. It just went through a $1.2 million dollar upgrade of its equipment, curriculum and 10,000 square foot facilities. Grace was attracted to the program by both its reputation and its affordability. Tuition and fees are a fraction of what private schools charge for similar courses of study. She attended her first class in the fall 2008 – at which point she freely admits “I knew NOTHING about cars – nothing at all.”
From the very first, Grace's gender was never an issue. "As soon as I showed up, I was accepted with open arms," Grace recalls, describing her instructors as "very supportive. They’re not just your professors, they are your friends. They never look at you like you’re stupid if you have a question, and they make sure that you understand what they’re teaching you."
Even Grace’s spare time was devoted to her new passion. BCC students spend two hours every Thursday at a student club of their choosing. Grace chose Auto Tech's Cobra Club and its ongoing project of assembling a complete car from the nuts and bolts up. “She was the first one who really jumped on it,” according to Vincenzo Rigaglia, Grace's instructor and mentor. “She became the president of the Cobra Club. She was here ALL the time – whenever she had a few minutes.”
The sheer muscle power required for a mechanic that once perhaps dissuaded women from entering this field is less of a factor than ever. As BCC's Auto Tech director Clement Drummond explains, “Today's automobiles are sophisticated â€” they can have as many as 60 computers. So it's not all lifting up a heavy tire." But on those occasions when physical force IS necessary, Grace was prepared for that as well – during her college years, she was a boxer who racked up an impressive win–loss record of 9–4.
Grace credits her years in the ring for her psychological strength as well, which she needed after she graduated in 2010 with her associate degree – and confronted the skepticism of male–dominated workplaces. “At first, I got ‘Oh, she’s not going to last, let’s see how long she’s going to be here, oh she’s a joke.’ But that didn’t knock me down because I got that when I was a fighter. I was mentally prepared for it.”
Grace says she is accepted as “one of the guys” at BMW, where she is the only female tech. “Grace is very hard–working, ambitious and willing to learn,” her boss Service Manager Jai Ho observes. “And being constantly willing to learn is important, because the technology is changing faster and faster.”
To women considering a career under the hood, Grace has simple advice. “Go for it,” she says, “I’m not going to say that it’s easy, because it isn’t. But if it’s something you really want to doâ€¦ yeah, go for it.”
For more information about Bronx Community College’s Automotive Technology Program, contact 718.289.5213 or email@example.com.