From salon to garage

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Kerri Matteson and her husband, Steve, take apart a clutch for an automatic transmission during their automotive technology class at Southwest Colorado Community College.

By Chase Olivarius-McAllister
Herald Staff Writer

At 10 a.m. last Wednesday, about 10 men — most of them young, all of them able-bodied — darted about Southwest Colorado Community College’s garage.

Over a cacophony of sounds — each of them seemingly produced by metal loudly hitting metal — one man in his early 20s draped his broad shoulders under an open car hood to examine gears on the inside, while another, his black trousers shiny with black stains, handled tools.

But one of these auto-mechanic students was not like the others.

In a work area adjacent to the main garage, Kerri Matteson, with her husband and classmate, Steve, stood hunched over a table, immersed in reassembling an automatic transmission.

Matteson, 36 — a married mother of four, part-time nursing student and former cosmetologist — is the only woman enrolled in SCCC’s automotive-repair program. After two years of 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. classes four or five days a week, she’s about to graduate in its Auto Service program with an Associate of Applied Science degree and a certificate in General Automotive Technology.

Asked why she’s excited to give up hairdressing for a life of fixing cars, Matteson, a bubbly blonde, smiled.

“I think I’ll make a lot more money,” she said.

Her dream is to open an auto-repair shop with her husband in Salt Lake City.

She’s likely right about the money.

According to the Labor Department, on average, hairdressers, stylists and cosmetologists made $22,750 — including tips — in 2011, less than they made in 2010. The average salary for automotive technicians is $38,200 — but it varies a lot according to training.

Women: Auto mechanically disqualified

Driving culture is notable for the resilience of its misogynist mythologies: Despite the success of NASCAR driver Danica Patrick and studies that consistently show women are less likely to be involved in accidents, old refrains such as “Women can’t drive” and “Women don’t know how to change a tire” persist in pop culture.

But while the facts argue for women’s equality on the road, they eloquently demonstrate women’s inequality under the hood.

Whereas women make up 15.7 percent of the active U.S. Army, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics, only 1.2 percent of automotive body and repair workers are women.

A large part of auto mechanics is, of course, physical labor — an area where men possess some natural advantage.

Matteson said that early in her course, she nearly gave up, complaining to her instructor Chris Ewald, “No, you don’t understand, I’m not as strong as you.”

Ewald wouldn’t settle for that.

“She didn’t have as easy a time getting fasteners loose. So she’s had to learn more about the physics side of it, like the old saying — ‘Give me a lever big enough and I can move the world,” he said.

While Matteson said her oldest daughter — who, at 15 years old, is understandably daunted by traditional gender roles— was slightly embarrassed by her mother’s grease-monkey appearance, her husband was adamant that his wife’s skill set was important.

“It’s a valuable skill set, and you can always get a job,” he said.

Steve Matteson’s thoroughly modern outlook matches their marriage: He and his wife share in the care for their four children, Kerri’s nephew and Kerri’s mother, who is in a wheelchair and suffered a major stroke.

But Steve said he wasn’t the only supportive man in Kerri’s life, pointing to her instructors, Ewald and Bob Duncan, and to her classmates. Whereas auto shops are notorious for their macho, often profane, language, Steve said their classmates had been models of kindness, good manners and openhearted professionalism.

“I really have to hand it to them, all that male dialogue — they never get filthy,” Kerri said.

“Whereas the whole community out there, they talk shop talk 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” Steve said.

Shifting gears

Kerri didn’t mean to get into auto repair: She meant for Steve, who worked as a locksmith, to get into auto repair.

“I knew if I said I was doing it, he’d do it,” she said.

(Kerri comes by her insights honestly; she’s been married to Steve since 1996.)

But her psychological gamesmanship backfired when she discovered that she loved auto mechanics.

“I absolutely love it, especially anything to do with wrenching,” she said.

Ewald, who has known hundreds of male auto mechanics but only three women, said auto-mechanic work “attracts a certain kind of woman, who’s attracted to challenge and not afraid of getting her hands dirty,” he said.

Fiddling with disks inside the automatic transmission, Kerri disagreed.

“I’d recommend it to every woman,” she said, citing a recent instance on a family trip from Cortez to Telluride when she changed the car tire in full view of her children. Meanwhile, Steve, as he put it with some pride, “sat back and let her.”

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