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Lenora Stenersen, Sparking Change

She pushed through barriers to be one of BC's few women mechanics. Now she works alongside her dad at Coast Mountain.

Justin Langille 5 May 2011TheTyee.ca

Justin Langille is a multi-media journalist who writes about labour and other issues for The Tyee and others.

Every Thursday, inside the vast spaces of the Coast Mountain Bus Company transit centre garage in Surrey, B.C., a father and his kid go to work together.

Dad spends his days in the back of the garage as a tire man, replacing rubber on the 40- and 60-foot diesel busses that shuttle Metro Vancouver passengers to and from the little engagements that make up daily life.

His kid is a self-described wrench head who can often be found buried in an engine block out in the main bays of the garage, making sure that the fleet is in good working order.

They don't see each other during shift much, but right now it's lunchtime. Things are quiet. They take a moment to check in and see how the day is going. In matching orange overalls, disheveled from a hard morning's work, they sit at the tire department desk, relaxing and talking like old friends.

The days of passing down a trade career from generation to generation are numbered, as the world of work changes and diversifies at breakneck speed. They know they're lucky; this little arrangement almost didn't happen.

It was difficult for the kid to break into the field; the path to becoming a commercial transport mechanic wasn't easy.

"It took me 10 years to do a five-year apprenticeship," Lenora Stenersen tells me. "I was the wrong gender."

'I wear gloves'

Last November Stenersen stood in front of 1,500 attendees at the BC Federation of Labour convention, receiving a standing ovation. She had delivered a speech about her career in commercial transport mechanics, the support she received from her family, and the adversity she faced in getting her career on track.

She also implored everyone to encourage their daughters to pursue a career in the trades.

After departing the stage, she was approached by audience members with a barrage of questions.

Some wanted to know about the three-quarter ton pickup trucks she used to race on off-road dirt tracks, but the biggest question, says Stenerson, was, "How do you do mechanics with those?" She waves 10 polished white and pink nails in front of me as we sip coffee in a Vancouver café.

"It's curiosity right?" she says. "How do you take offense to that? Typically, mechanics have gross, dirty, disgusting hands, and I don't. I wear gloves."

The nails, she tells me, she does herself on her off hours. "I could make killer money," she tells me. "I do them for wedding parties."

Stenerson recently was appointed by her union brothers and sisters to be a Canadian Auto Worker-Coast Mountain Bus joint apprenticeship committee representative. As a female red seal commercial transport mechanic, Stenersen is held high in union circles, and by friends, as an example of what a young woman can achieve in a trade still ruled by men.

In the garage

Len Stenersen remembers a day in 1992 in the garage of their Surrey home when he and his 13 year-old daughter Lenora were hard at work, installing the transmission of a 1951 Mercury Meteor he was rebuilding. By the time the job was finished, she was covered in tranny oil.

"Her mother was about ready to kill me," he says, laughing. Stenersen realized right then that his daughter was going to be a mechanic.

Father and daughter would spend hours together in the family garage, learning the names of wrenches and, eventually, rebuilding engines. They rebuilt an entire classic 1949 Jeep Willy and sold it, then moved on to a Chevy step side shortbox truck. Composed of a 71 cab, a 69 step-box rear end and a 383 stroker engine they previously had built together, the truck was a milestone in Lenora's development as a mechanic.

"She actually did the truck herself," says Len. "She did the upholstery in it, she put the stereo system in it... that was a nice truck when she was finished."

Exploring mechanics in the Queen Elizabeth High auto shop in Surrey for a semester pushed Lenora closer to pursuing formal education in the trades, but nothing was more of an influence than the time that she spent in the garage pulling wrenches with the old man.

She was inspired to take on three weeks of additional high school work experience at the same Surrey garage of the Coast Mountain Bus Company where Len worked.

The busses she worked on, with systems far more complex than any classic car she had built, intrigued her. In 1999, at the age of 20, she enrolled in the entry-level trades training program at BCIT in Burnaby, the program required to get into the commercial transport mechanics apprenticeship program.

In 10 months, she roared through the basic training of the entry-level program, landing at the top of her class.

Now, to find a company that would take her on as an apprentice for the next four years of the program.

It takes most people five years to become a red seal commercial transport mechanic.

Lenora Stenersen, on the other hand, was in for a 10-year-long ride.

Jumping through hoops

"You get a bunch of résumés, you're gonna look at the qualifications," says Stenersen. "Gender shouldn't come into it." But that isn't how her prospective employers worked.

Some were willing to tell her outright why she wouldn't be brought on. "You're a girl, we'll never hire you," Stenersen says, recounting what she was told by more than one manager during a face-to-face meeting. "I had choice words to say, but I did walk away."

The pain of rejection took its toll. At her friend's house one night, she recalls, "I put my fist through the wall and hit the guy on the other side."

Giving up on handing out applications for a couple of years, she had all but given up on getting an apprenticeship. She went to work for a small trucking company. Initially repairing axles, she learned enough to repair any part of a big rig before getting laid off. A Ford dealership gig offered a chance to clean and detail cars, but never a chance at working on anything under the hood.

It wasn't until six years after completing her entry-level requirements that things would turn around for Stenersen.

She got the call she'd been waiting for from Coast Mountain Bus Company. It came on her cell phone as she was driving towards Langley on a summer day. She pulled her Firebird over at the Chevron on the corner of 76th Street to answer.

The voice on the other end of the line told her that she had a job. And it happened to be working in the same garage as her father.

Writing it in

Dense with metal siding and concrete foundations, BCIT's Burnaby campus is a labyrinth of post secondary trades workshops and stockyards; a sort of Santa's workshop for members of the workforce looking to develop a hands-on career.

Through the gates of zone North East 6 on a grey March afternoon, a group of young women dressed in baggy faded green and blue overalls occupy a rudimentary plumbing laboratory.

Cast iron pipes and valves of all gauges are being fitted to a series of trial house frame walls. Water is poured through the rickety setups to see if the systems will hold; these are the initial plumbing experiments helmed by the women, who are trying out this trade, and many others, for the first time.

These students are mid-way through the Trades Discovery for Women program offered by BCIT. It's a 16-week full-time program offering women exposure to the trades, entry level experience in over 20 different fields, in everything from basic construction to complex manufacturing.

An ad hoc program since the 1980s, it's been a full time option since 1995 as a way to introduce women to trades careers.

Even today, women comprise about only 11 per cent of students who complete a trades certificate apprenticeship in Canada, up from six per cent in the early 1990s, according to a Statscan study released last year. Overall, women account for between one to two per cent of completion in major trade groups, the study found, meaning that non-traditional occupations for women, like pipefitting or welding, are still populated mostly by men.

Tamara Pongracz, a career tradeswoman and head instructor of the program, sees the landscape of trades work changing for women. Enrollment in the program increases yearly and her students are welcomed, even treated equally, when they venture out into shops and garages for their two-week work experiences. At the same time, she's realistic about the gravity of the situation for her students.

"If you send out a bunch of résumés for trades work with a typical gal's name, chances are that you may not [find opportunity]," Pongracz tells me. "We've definitely seen examples of that with my students who are trying to break into companies. It takes an open minded and an evolved employer."

Pongracz isn't kidding. From 1971 to 2001, the number of female mechanics in B.C. increased only 0.9 per cent from 65 to 220 according to a study published by SFU researchers.

Strengthening those numbers will require not just having equality written into national or company policies. Employers also have to be willing to adhere to policy, says Pongracz.

That said, she feels it's important to note that not all guys make it in the trades; it's not for everybody.

"It's physical, it's mentally challenging," says Pongracz. "It takes a certain amount of chutzpah, a certain amount of determination and tenacity. The work can be cyclical, you could be unemployed and that, especially for single moms, would make it very difficult to stick with it."

Trades Discovery for Women student Rain Smith is from blue collar roots and people in her life didn't urge her get a degree. Now she's about to hit mechanics shops in Burnaby with résumés in hand, hoping to be taken on.

"I know that I won't get some jobs because I'm a girl," Smith concedes. "I know that."

But she imagines one day being her own boss, possibly owning a small neighbourhood shop with a loyal client base and a small staff.

How to change a tire

Stenerson knows that she could have taken those managers who discriminated against her gender to court, but that's not who she is. She understands the attitudes that the old guard of mechanics were raised with. "If they want to live in the '60s, they can live in the '60s. I don't want to work somewhere that doesn't want me there."

582px version of Father and daughter bus mechanics
Len Stenersen and daughter Lenora on break at Coast Mountain garage.

After settling into her position at Coast Mountain, Stenersen sees opportunities for other young women pursuing mechanics as a career. As boomers start to retire and birth rates continue to decline, the need for skilled mechanics to maintain the workhorses of the public transit system is only going to increase.

According to the 2009-2019 Labour Market Outlook for B.C., jobs related to trades, transport and equipment operators and related occupations have the second strongest outlook for prospective job openings across B.C. Those jobs will also experience the second highest growth province-wide.

Coast Mountain offers opportunities to come into the shop and learn; however, few of the high school co-op students or BCIT apprentices who come through the door are young women.

Women account for only three licensed mechanics, seven or eight electronic technicians and three or four parts persons positions in Coast Mountain company-wide, by Stenersen's count. Besides an apprentice electrician, Stenersen is the only woman working in her Surrey garage.

Stenerson thinks that, just like home-ec, mandatory time in an automotive shop class should be part of the curriculum in high school so that guys and girls get a sense of what a job in a garage could be about.

"Teach the girls and the guys how to change a tire, how to change their oil," says Stenersen. "Nothing huge, just basic stuff so if they get in a situation where they do need to change a flat tire they know how."

She thinks that labour force gender roles are still too rigid, and that parents need to be careful about how they encourage their kids. Rather than send your daughters to get a degree that they might never be able to use, suggests Stenersen, why not open a door to the trades, which, for a hard days work, can offer a good quality of life?

The best part of her day is when she has enough time to complete a job. When, by 3:30 p.m., she can pick up her tools and send a bus on its way with a clean bill of health.

"I'm the kind of person who likes to finish what I start."

A sort of Monday morning

Stenersen has already been out once on this grey, early spring day for a roadside pick up on a bus that stalled along a busy Surrey road.

Her foreman Dave is calling her out again to go pick up a dysfunctional member of the fleet from the Surrey Central transit hub.

"Welcome to running repairs," Stenersen says with an air of sarcastic enthusiasm.

However, before she goes, she's on the hunt for her missing apprentice. She's been showing a BCIT student around the engine block, introducing him to the delicate process of replacing a small but expensive fuel injector. A brief scan of the garage and the lunchroom reveals no trace of him.

She hopes he's been taken out with another crew in her absence. Stenersen's concern stems from her own experience as a novice. She knows how important it is to get the most from these times in a professional garage.

As he watches his daughter rush about, her dad admits that it was a little awkward negotiating space in the beginning, as he figured out how to stay out of her way and let her grow into her place in the shop.

Now, though, running into her around the garage is as normal as Sunday dinner.

When she's not listening, he reveals a father's pride.

"It's worked out though. You know, she's one of the best mechanics in here."  [Tyee]

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