WASHINGTON—When you think of a car mechanic, the first image that comes to mind is of a man with some grease under his fingers and enough strength to move big parts around. But more women appear to be taking up a job that has become increasingly more computer-oriented and less focused on brawn.
The field still is mostly male. But the number of women auto service technicians certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) has nearly tripled since 1988.
The institute serves as a barometer of what is happening in the field, since it represents more than a third of working auto technicians, said ASE's Richard White.
The number of certified women technicians jumped from 556 in 1988 to 1,592 in 1995, though the number of women in the field is still small compared to men. In 1995, about 397,000 technicians were certified by ASE.
``We're seeing a steady increase of women, even though the numbers still aren't great,'' Mr. White said.
Why are there more women choosing to become techs?
Part of the reason is demand, experts say. The automotive industry claims it needs about 80,000 new, qualified technicians every year.
Then there's the appeal—for men and women—of a field that commands higher salaries as the job skills needed continue to increase. The government has estimated that auto mechanics skilled in computer diagnostics can earn from $30,000 to $75,000.
The average starting salary at a Ford dealership can be $30,000, or more in large cities, according to Chris Pio, a manager of Ford Motor Co.'s program to develop entry-level service technicians for its dealerships.
In New Hampshire, well-trained technicians likely will be in the $40,000-plus salary range after five years, said Dave Schell, executive director of the New Hampshire Automotive Education Foundation. He has seen salaries eventually reach as much as $100,000.
Then there's the change in the field over the past 15 years. In 1990, 18 percent of the functions in a typical new car were controlled by computer, Mr. White said. Now about 80 percent of the functions in today's car are controlled by electronics.
``The increase (in women) reflects the shift towards electronics and computers in operating cars and diagnosing problems with cars,'' he said.
Experts in the auto industry are fond of saying that today's cars have as much computing power as the first Apollo lunar space capsule.
That means these days the auto industry favors employing technicians who have two more years of education and training beyond high school, Mr. Schell said.
Several interviews with female technicians working at dealerships in Washington and Maryland indicated that many women are still the only female in the shop.
But Mary Behanna, an auto service technician at a Ford dealership in Maryland, said that during the 13 years she has been working on autos the field has changed to appeal more to women. ``There's not much on the car that isn't somehow or another `wired in' '' to computers, she said. ``I personally find the technical aspects fascinating, and there might be more women who feel the same way about the computer work.
``More brawn was required for a lot of the work in the earlier days. Although, you still have engines and transmissions that are very heavy,'' said Ms. Behanna—the only woman in a shop of 23 technicians.
In another indication the field is attracting women, last year for the first time, an all-woman team from San Diego competed in the annual automotive technician contest in Washington, D.C., that features the best high school students from the 50 states.
Contestant Stacey Govern, a junior thinking about becoming an auto mechanic, said she decided she wanted ``to fix my own car, the transmission, the oil, and change the tires. . . so I didn't have to rely on anybody else.''
Interviews with four other women from San Diego's Ramona High School who are taking automotive classes showed they do not want to be defined by traditional roles.
``The other day, I was going down to the beach with a couple of friends and we had problems with the car,'' said Breanne Duval, then a sophomore. ``We pulled over and the guys couldn't even get the hood open. I opened the hood and saw the battery screw was loose and the wires were loose.''
Nicole Hall, also a sophomore at the time, added: ``It makes me feel better, knowing I can do this. If the car breaks down, I can help instead of standing there holding a flashlight.''
Ms. O'Brien is an Associated Press writer.