When Bridgette Ross made the decision to attend Wyotech in Laramie, Wyoming, to study auto collision refinishing, many people questioned whether it was the right choice. Ross wanted to take her love for cars and turn it into a career in an industry historically dominated by men.
“I’ve always been into cars ever since I was little,” she said. “I really love the Fast and Furious movies. I like custom things and designing things. That’s why I took custom fabrication and paint. I was challenged by a lot of people and nobody thought I was going to be able to do it. I have two small children that stayed here with their dad while I went to school. It was pretty challenging. Some days were really emotionally taxing. I didn’t get any assistance so I had to work two jobs to make my car payment and to be able to come home to see my kids. It was really rewarding but now I don’t know what to do with my free time.”
Ross made it through the program — which only had around 10 other women in it — and is now a collision and paint technician at CARSTAR, 402 N. Main St., Ottawa. She is the only female in the shop and said she really wasn’t hesitant about the job.
“This is my first job,” she said. “I’m pretty sassy. When I came in I started rearranging things and cleaning. I thought, ‘they will get to know me and learn to love me.’”
She knew she was accepted when the guys at the shop played a prank on her.
“They didn’t know what to think of me at first,” she said. “They positioned a piece of duct tape to make it look like a part I was working on was scratched and needed to be repainted. I was about to lose my mind and then I touched it and the tape came off. They said it was the reaction they expected.”
Just how rare is it for a woman to work in the auto repair industry? According to the U.S. Department of Labor statistics, of the 39 million women in the workforce, mechanical careers make up only one percent. That includes auto repair, HVAC and other mechanical jobs. In the automotive repair industry in the United States, women make up only 7 percent of the entire workforce according to Catalyst, a website that specialize in women in the workforce.
While automotive repair has always been a passion, Ross tried some other careers before starting the WyoTech program.
“I tried to go to school for nursing and that really didn’t work out,” she said. “I tried cosmetology school but I am not really girly. I did factory work but I was just miserable. I was looking up career ideas and I just thought this was what I really liked and should go to school for.”
In looking for a new career, she recalled meeting a representative from Wyotech while a student at Ottawa High School. She remembers that the representative was a woman and thought that was really cool. She was also a fan of legendary designer Chip Foose and said someday she would like to be in the design industry.
At CARSTAR, her duties include painting and collision but Ross is already looking ahead.
“I’m pre-enrolled in industrial design school at the University of Kansas so that’s my next step,” she said. “It touches on a little bit of everything. I will learn how to design furniture, cars, electronics. It’s a five-year program but it’s what I want to do. This is going to be my experience but ultimately I want to be an automotive designer like Chip Foose.”
Ross has two kids, an 8-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy. She said they were the reason she decided to follow her new career path. She said her daughter understands how hard it was for her to get where she is and proud of her. She hopes that the chance she took and her hard work gives her something she can give back to her kids.
“I feel like going through that made me a better mom too because the happier I am, the better mom I will be,” she said.