The Manicured Mechanic

Emily Holz conducts a battery test on a Chevy Cruse in Chatsworth, Calif., on April 21, 2024. Photo by Myraneli Fabian

When Emily Holz showed up for one of her first automotive service technician classes at Pierce College, she raised more than a few eyebrows. Holz describes herself as a niche within a niche, a girly-girl, pink-loving, glitter-bedecked female who shines like a cheerfully defiant beacon in a male-dominated field. When her instructor saw her long, painted fingernails, he suggested she wouldn’t be able to do engine work with them.

It wasn’t the first time Holz had been told she couldn’t do something.

Without hesitation, Holz reached in and plucked out a spark plug with her nails. Having proven her point, she forged ahead with her classes without incident, acrylic nails and all.

“A lot of times girls are expected to play with dolls, or whatever, and guys are expected to play with Hot Wheels,” she said. “And so, I think  a lot of girls never considered that, you know, they could do something like this.” 

Holz, 31, has worked at Tesla for the past two years, diagnosing and repairing electric vehicles. During her time at Pierce, she earned an associate degree and certification in automotive service technology, as well as light service technician and powertrain specialist certificates.

She’s found that making it in the automotive field, traditionally a man’s world, requires not only the love of a challenge but a solid sense of self.

“I think it’s really important to just forge your own path and stay true to yourself, and not let anybody else tell you what they think you should be doing,” she said.

Holz represents the changing face of the automotive industry, a domain once ruled by brawny males needing major muscle power to pull engines apart. But now, repairs principally require more brains than brawn, as the industry has gone high-tech. She said that it is the technical aspects of present-day automotive servicing that are the most interesting part of her job.

“I think the thing that I like the best, that challenges me the most, is the computer aspect of it, and how Teslas are basically computers on wheels,” she said.

Pierce College Industrial Technology Department Chair Alex Villalta said it is the high-tech aspect of modern car repair that has not only changed the concept of what a mechanic is, but it has helped level the playing field for women. 

“Ultimately, one of the biggest things for people to succeed in this industry is to be familiar with the electronic world, with the computer world, being able to program,” he said.

Being a mechanic may have formerly conjured images of grease monkeys in dirty, low-paying jobs, but that has changed with the new breed of cars.

“It was almost like, if you’re not good at school, try being a mechanic. Well, now it’s a lot different, and that’s why I think it’s opened up the door to females,” said Villalta, whose department’s enrollment is 10% women. “The best skill that you can have right now, whether you’re a male or a female, honestly comes down to being very familiar with electronics.”

As the future of cars continues to be shaped by technology, such as continued electrification, autonomous driving and, someday, possibly flying vehicles, women’s involvement in the field will likely grow, Villalta said. Their department regularly holds outreach events at high schools to let girls know this is an exciting and lucrative new field full of opportunities for women, which often surprises them.

The female students “are looking at you like, ‘What makes you think that I would want to do that? That’s not for me. That’s dirty, that’s hard work.’ But the minute you start telling them that they can make $150,000 a year, $100,000 a year, and you can make all this money, their eyes open up,” he said.

Villalta used former female students such as Holz as an example.

“It goes into a perspective where they feel, ‘Hey, you know what? If she could do it, I could do it, too.’ So, I simply just try my best to remove the stigma that this is only a field for males,” he said.

Automotive work was not something that Joanna Trujillo, 18, had originally considered as a career path. She was still in high school when she was first introduced to the program at Pierce and decided to try it out with one part-time course.  

“During my senior year of high school, I did apply to a lot of universities for things I was interested in  like language and culture or Asian Studies. However, it kind of shifted into automotive because I took an electrical class here,” she said. 

Trujillo said her family was supportive of her choice to enroll as a full-time automotive student after she graduated from high school. In a sense, her dad helped convince her to go for it.

“I told them my plans were to finish studying here for automotive, and he’s like, ‘That’s amazing. You could probably help me work on my car later on,’” Trujillo said.

Even though women are becoming more common in the industry, it remains an old boys club in many ways. Data USA reports that only 2.3 % of automotive service technicians and mechanics in the country are women. Villalta said it is not so much an automotive problem, but a societal one, and he has received a surprising amount of pushback from traditional auto workers who feel threatened by programs training women. Though they’ve taunted him with jibes such as, “You probably wear a skirt at night,” he does not shy away from engaging in conversations with skeptics who feel a woman can’t do a man’s job.

Villata explained that it will take changing a culture that thinks women are just there to look pretty and to sell vehicles.

“As a society, we still have a long way to go,” he concluded. 

Holz considers herself lucky to have gotten into a training program that encouraged women to excel. She was impressed with the instructors and said most of the male students took her presence in stride. 

“I did feel like I kind of had to prove myself sometimes. But once I kind of did, and they realized, ‘Oh yeah, this girl knows what she’s talking about, she’s here to be serious.’ Then, they trusted and respected me,” she said.

Getting into the field of automotive servicing was not something Holz, who also has a degree in filmmaking, originally envisioned for her life. 

“I mean, 10 years ago, would I have thought I would have been doing this? I would have laughed in your face,” she said.

Had it not been for a broken air-conditioner and a precariously low bank account, she might never have discovered her penchant for fixing cars. She was living in steamy Florida at the time, driving an old, second-hand, bubblegum pink Mercedes that she’d bought because she fell in love with the color. The car had enough mileage on it that all her friends warned her against the purchase, and eventually the air conditioner stopped working. When a local repair shop quoted her a $1,500 price, which made her gulp, she turned to do-it-yourself YouTube videos for help.

“I actually bought the parts myself and I put them in,” she said. “I’d never done anything on a car, I maybe put windshield washer fluid in. And I replaced the blower motor on the AC, and the little actuator that turns it on and off. It cost me $100, and it was 20 minutes.” 

She vowed to go to the internet again the next time she had a car problem.

Holz later drove her pink car to Los Angeles seeking work in the film industry, voice-acting and editing. Cobbling together part-time freelance work was difficult, so she ended up pulling shifts at Starbucks and other restaurants to make ends meet. 

Then, COVID-19 hit. Burned out by the food industry, Holz considered going back to school.

“And the thought kind of popped into my head one day, ‘What if you studied automotive? Even if I go and I hate it, I’ll never have to pay somebody to fix my car again. And I’ll know how to fix it,’” she said. 

Holz enrolled at Pierce in February 2021, and by the next January she was working at Tesla, even before she completed her coursework. She enjoys her job, not only because it requires critical thinking and problem-solving, but because supportive teamwork is an important aspect of the work. 

“Tesla was really good with being collaborative,” she said. “So, if I have a car that’s kind of stumping me, I can talk to my other co-workers about it, and they can kind of give me their feedback. Or vice versa, where my co-workers can come to me and say, ‘Hey, have you ever encountered this issue?’” 

Holz is actively involved in spreading the word that science, cars and girls go together through programs organized by her company that encourage interest in STEM. 

“I went to an event that Tesla was actually putting on down in Costa Mesa, and it’s called Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day,” she said. “We had some middle school girls come, and we built a simple motor with them, showed them around the shop, talked to them about the equipment that we use, showed them we had a new Cybertruck there, so they got to see that.”

Holz believes more women need encouragement to step into roles they may not have previously considered. Though aspects of her job can be physically and mentally demanding, she noted that other traditional female careers, such as nursing, are as well.

Holz feels happy with the way her life is going.

“People have these kinds of preconceived notions, or they’ve been told by their parents or friends of these specific paths that they need to follow,” she said. “And I just want to say, that’s not the case at all. I started studying automotive when I was 29, and I’m happier than ever. I make more money than I ever have before. I’ve made lifelong friends. I’ve been lucky with my company that I’ve been able to travel across the country. I’ve never had a job where I was able to travel, and I’ve never had co-workers who want to come help work on my car after work.” 

Pulling out a spark plug with her long nails that first day in class was symbolic of the way Holz has lived her life so far, unafraid to be different. She emphasized the importance of not letting negative voices crush your spirit. She hopes that if people hear her unconventional story, they’ll realize that life does not have to leave them stuck, afraid to pursue different choices.

“It doesn’t matter what anybody says. You need to do what’s best for you,” Holz said. “And if that means paving your own way and paving a way that’s never been done before, that’s what you need to do.”

Advice from an Agent of Change

When Joan Michelson was recruited to head communications, sales and marketing in Chrysler’s electric car division, she said she fell in love with the green economy and  auto sector at the same time. Being surrounded by “smart, interesting people doing cool stuff, making the world a better place, making money and having fun,” fueled her passion for sustainable technology, she said.

Michelson now works as a corporate consultant and hosts the podcast “Electric Ladies,” which promotes women in sustainable STEM fields. She expressed that involving more women in the automotive field makes solid economic sense.

“Companies that have a diverse workforce have better performance metrics across the board,” Michelson said. “They do better for the financial metrics, they have better, fewer scandals and problems, they have more productivity, they have better cultures. They tend to keep talent longer, have less turnover. So, it’s a self-perpetuating trend when they’re looking at the data.”

The U.S. International Trade Commission supports her view. In a 2020 report, the commission berated the automotive industry for lacking both gender and racial diversity at a leadership level, noting the strong correlation between executive diversity and positive financial performance. They stated that “increasing the number of women and Black people in leadership positions may increase the competitiveness of U.S.automotive firms.”

When women are in top-level positions, corporate recruiting policies transform because women recruit women, according to Michelson.

“Anybody who’s not a white man tends to recruit more people who are not white men, and especially women,” she said.

When General Motors hired Mary Barra, the first woman chair and CEO of a major international carmaker, she reshaped the company and dramatically changed their hiring practices. Industry giants such as General Motors and Chrysler are looking toward women to be C-suite innovators and agents of change.

Michelson said she was recruited to help them seize opportunities in more creative ways.

“My boss said the fact that I have no experience in the auto sector is what made me effective because I wasn’t held back by the way things have always been done,” Michelson said. “I joke that I will always be mid-career because I’m always learning.”

Michelson provided a list of tips for women wanting to gain a foothold in the automotive industry:

– Be good at your job.

– Network.

– Be open to learn, and never stop learning. Stay curious.

– Have good communication skills. Ask for what you need.

– Challenge your own assumptions and other people’s assumptions. Politely, but challenge them.