Cecile Bukmeier makes history as advocate for women in trades

Auto body program's first female instructor helps usher in a new era for trades

When Cecile Bukmeier (Auto Body Technician ’15) started working in an auto body shop as a teenager, her boss relegated her to sweeping the floors and taking out the trash – tasks that taught her nothing about refinishing cars but everything about attitudes women in the trade sometimes faced.

“There were very few women at this shop,” she says, “and there were none working in the back of the garage.”

Today, after several years of proving herself in the industry, Bukmeier is the first female instructor in NAIT’s Auto Body Technician program – a program that began more than 50 years ago.

She comes to the job as one of the province’s top technicians, having earned gold medals in auto body competitions at Skills Canada Alberta (a kind of Olympics for the trades) in 2013 and later at the national level. But she also joins NAIT as one of Alberta’s strongest advocates for women in trades, and hopes to guide apprentices through the challenges she herself faced – if not to help eliminate those challenges altogether.

Bukmeier completed her apprenticeship relatively recently, but her experiences as a woman in the industry were discouraging. After working at 3 places where she was less than welcome, “I thought, ‘Is nobody going to give me a break?’”

She didn’t give up. Bukmeier excelled at her studies and found a small shop with a forward-thinking boss. “I felt like if I was there to work, not to flirt with the guys, and I would work twice as hard, people would notice.

“That was my attitude: You can’t tell me I can’t do something. I’ll show you.” Now, that spirit guides her as an instructor, where she’s becoming the mentor she never had.

Poster girl for the trade

The roadmap for Bukmeier’s career was established as a kid, growing up with a mechanic for a dad.

“Some of my earliest memories are of tinkering around in the garage,” she says, “playing with nuts and bolts and whatever was around.”

In high school, she was given an assignment to research 3 trades. All of her choices related to cars. “I’ve always been artistic, and refinishing is about things like painting and manipulating metal. It spoke to me,” she says.

Now 24, Bukmeier joined Skills Canada Alberta as chair of the provincial committee (she also works with Skills Canada) after she aged out of competition at 21.

During the pre-employment course before her apprenticeship, her passion for working on vehicles and sheer skill made her stand out – so much so that she appeared in a video shown at career fairs – making her a kind of poster girl for the auto body industry. Scott Sinclair, department head of Transportation programs for the School of Skilled Trades, noticed that spark.

“Many young girls were impressed to see that,” he says. 

"Refinishing is about things like painting and manipulating metal. It spoke to me.”

Female students don’t pursue careers in the trades simply because they can’t be what they can’t see, according to Stephenie Fuhrer, who works with NAIT’s Women in Technology and Trades initiative.

She points to research revealing that women like Bukmeier are still operating in a career dominated by men: in 2012, only 9% of Alberta apprentices were female, who accounted for just 4.2% in auto body services. After teaching 5 classes so far, Bukmeier has had only 6 female students.

How to close the gender gap? Fuhrer put it this way: “Increasing knowledge when they are in junior and senior high school can show them how fun and rewarding a career in the trades and technologies can be. Witnessing Cecile in the class, the love of her trade and watching her work really helps young girls to see themselves in that role.”

In the classroom, Bukmeier brings more than just her knowledge of how to get an automobile back on the road. She’s a sounding board for first-period apprentices.

“Women want to feel comfortable in the workplace, and a lot of times they don’t.”

That’s why her job can involve preparing women for issues that may arise in shops despite having nothing to do with auto body repair. What will you do if you’re asked whether you’re physically able to do things, she offers as an example. Or if asked whether you’ll need a babysitter during shift work. Or if you’ll get upset if the guys ask you to get coffee.

Coolest project at NAIT

NAIT BBQ team fridge

When NAIT's BBQ team needed a fridge that had the flashiness they wanted on display at their summer competitions, they went to the Auto Body Technician program for help.

Instructor Cecile Bukmeier saw a chance to make something, well, cool, while engaging her students.

"Some of the refinishing students were interested in a custom paint challenge," Bukmeier says. "I thought that this BBQ fridge would be a perfect project."

The fridge will travel with the team throughout Alberta this summer, support the Culinary Arts staff members while showcasing the talents of Bukmeier and her students.

 NAIT staff

180-degree change

These situations, she believes, are becoming ever more outdated. “There’s been an almost 180-degree change from when I started,” says Bukmeier. She has noticed a shift in the classroom, too.

“I see students from an assortment of ages and experiences – mothers with children, fathers with newborns at home.”

But that shift still needs to become the norm. Her work with Skills Canada Alberta includes promoting the trades to junior-high and high-school students. She’d also like to see broader representation in the media and in advertising.

“Everybody’s seen the construction guy covered in mud. Maybe show a women, too, who’s also getting dirty.”

Bukmeier still sees herself in that role. Despite become as a teacher and an advocate, she hasn’t left the garage behind.

Ever since she got her first car – a 2001 yellow Sunfire – she’s been drawn to the hands-on work of repair and restoration. These days, she keeps her skills sharp working on motorcycles. “You can go wild on them,” she says.

Her next project? A 1979 Honda CM400 that needs a full restoration. It seems you can take the girl out of the auto body shop, but you can’t take the auto body shop out of the girl – something Bukmeier readily admits, saying: “I’ll never stop.”

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