Female teacher blazes trail in NAIT's auto body shop

Cecile Bukmeier is the first woman to teach the auto-body technician program at NAIT.

'I just want to learn this stuff. I really want the experience, I'm willing to do what it takes'

Cecile Bukmeier is the first woman to teach the auto-body technician program at NAIT. 1:22

It took years of sweeping floors and taking out the trash before Cecile Bukmeier got her hands on a car.

Bukmeier was a 15-year-old high school student in an apprenticeship program where the technicians in the auto body shop wouldn't let her near one.

"I didn't even wash cars. They didn't let me touch one vehicle the entire time I was there, which was really disappointing."

Even friends and family asked why she would want to work on cars instead of going to university. But the shop was where she got the most grief. 

What if you break a nail while you're here?- Body shop technician to Cecile Bukmeier

" 'You'll probably end up as a receptionist,' " one shop technician said to her. " 'You're probably better suited in there because you won't get dirty.'

"And I was like — but that's not what I want to do."

That was in 2009.

"I remember in our mixing room, there were pictures of strippers. And every time I had to go in there and sweep, all the guys would make jokes. 'Maybe you'll grow up to be like that one day,' they said."

Growing up

Bukmeier grew up working in the garage with her dad.

She was immediately drawn toward auto body and cars. She remembers opening up a Hot Rod magazine and seeing a photo of a car with an impressive "candy" paint job, a veneer or finish applied over a basic paint job.

"I read the credits and I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, this was painted by a person, not a machine. How did they do this, how can I learn how to do this?' 

"That's when auto body came into mind. And I was really interested in, you know, painting and fixing damaged cars or bringing old cars back to life. Just giving them that new look."

Cecile Bukmeier spent years sweeping floors and taking out the trash in auto body shops before getting her first break at painting and finishing cars. (NAIT)

Eventually, Bukmeier enrolled in NAIT's pre-employment program for auto body repair, where she got the training she was looking for.

Ryan Pomedli, her instructor at the time, said they noticed quickly that Bukmeier had a lot of skills and a good attitude.

"She was very willing to go above and beyond," Pomedli said. "She was willing to help out with other people, even if she was just learning herself."

Bukmeier soon started looking for another apprenticeship. Like most people starting out, she got her share of rejections, but also doses of sexism.

She said one technician asked her, " 'What if you break a nail while you're here, or what if you get pregnant and have to take time off?' "

She kept applying.

'I just want to learn'

"I just want to learn this stuff. I really want the experience, I'm willing to do what it takes," she said she told the owner of Shield Autobody.

Owner Jeff Hicks gave her a chance. On her first day of work, he got her to paint a fender. He wanted to see what level she was at, Bukmeier said.

"Every time I made a mistake, he asked me what I learned from it and how am I going to change it?"

She was there for four years.

Bukmeier instructs students in the paint room. (CBC)

"After I learned, I became really, really good."

She's proving that on many levels. While working at Shield Autobody, she competed and won both provincial and national Skills Canada — an event that promotes careers in the trades. Bukmeier now sits on the Skills Canada committee.

She moved on to a more specialized auto body shop before being asked by NAIT to apply as an instructor.

A trailblazer

Bukmeier is the first woman to teach in the NAIT's auto body technician program.

She works alongside Pomedli in an industry that remains dominated by men.

In an average class of 15 students, only one woman is enrolled.

NAIT instructor Ryan Pomedli coaches a student in the school's auto body program. (CBC)

Despite the gender gap, Pomedli thinks attitudes have changed since he taught Bukmeier nearly 10 years ago.

"It doesn't seem to be nearly like how it was years ago, where they would be almost afraid of taking a woman on as an employee," he said of auto body shops.

"These days, it doesn't matter if a person is male or female or ... old or young. If they're willing to put in the effort, there's a shop willing to take them on."

He said shop owners are more likely to look at someone's skills and attitude.

"They want people who are committed to learning, to bettering themselves," he said. "Cecile was very good at doing all of that."

Women enrolled in trades programs at NAIT make up on average eight per cent of the student population.

Second-year student Abdallah Moursel thinks women should be given the same opportunities as men.

"It's nice to have equal amount of males and females [in the class]," he said. "It's not only for us guys."

A Corvette is a rare treat for students in NAIT's auto body technician program. (CBC)

Bukmeier advises anyone wanting to break into the industry to keep trying.

"It'll be a hundred no's, but in those hundred there'll be one person who's willing to give you a shot, and you just take it."