When Janálidae Norton’s 2003 Mazda Protege5 started to leak radiator fluid two years ago, she decided to challenge herself — and save some money too.
Norton, 32, parked her midnight-blue car in her Richmond, CA driveway, fired up a YouTube “how-to” video, and rolled up her sleeves.
She fixed the car herself.
“Aw, this is easy,” she later recalled thinking.
That’s exactly the kind of self-starting auto mechanic the district that manages the Golden Gate Bridge is looking for, as it works to not only diversify its ranks by reaching out specifically to women but also recruit young, energized people to join the trades.
Interest is waning among younger people in some of the blue collar work required to maintain ferry and bus operations, Golden Gate Bridge staff told the San Francisco Examiner. And as retirements mount, the need to boost recruitment is growing.
Now, in what officials consider a stroke of good luck, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District has found Norton and two others, one of whom is also a woman, to join San Francisco’s 18-week pre-apprenticeship program.
“They said women are encouraged to apply” in their outreach material, Norton said. “That’s when I knew. It made me go, ‘they’re looking.’”
Indeed, the outreach materials for the program feature photos of women repairing machinery, and note that women make up less than 2 percent of all auto technicians and mechanics in the United States, according to the Department of Labor.
The Golden Gate District Board of Directors approved funding to begin hosting pre-apprenticeships from the multi-agency recruitment program at its regular meeting in March. While the three positions will only cost the Golden Gate district $18,846 and sixty-nine cents, the program will set up three potential new trade apprentices with auto mechanic skills that may better their lives.
Norton, in particular, is keen to move on from her job loading trucks.
When she talks about learning to fix up vehicles, she smiles.
Apprenticeship SF is a multi-agency effort with the San Francisco Department of Human Resources, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, City College of San Francisco and other organizations. But the bridge district, in particular, is seeking to bring more women to work in the trades that maintain San Francisco’s international orange icon, as well as the Golden Gate Transit bus and ferry fleets.
“The idea of this program is to set people up to be successful,” said Steven Miller, deputy general manager of the district’s bridge division.
Actual apprenticeships are difficult to get, and tend to have an opaque process, Miller said. So the pre-apprenticeship program is really about showing people who are interested in joining trades how applying works and what the work actually entails, and introducing them to all the players.
The program aims to train automotive mechanics, automotive machinists, maintenance machinists, auto body and fender workers, and auto painters. Nine weeks are spent exclusively in the classroom and nine weeks on the job, which for Norton first meant spending three weeks learning the ins and outs of bus starters and air-conditioning systems.
Just past that three-week mark, Norton is now working on the Golden Gate district’s ferries, and helping in the repair of the gangways riders board every day from Larkspur to San Francisco. Her boss, marine mechanic Danny Valadez, led the Examiner on a tour of the shop while Norton donned her protective goggles and machined swivel pins for the gangway.
“She’s already got a talent,” Valadez said, while she worked.
The ability to sample different parts of the Golden Gate Bridge district’s operations has already led Norton to reconsider her love of repairing cars. Now, she says, she might be able to apply that same know-how to ferries, instead. “There are radiators,” she said. “They work different on a boat, but the parts are the same.”
On Thursday as she finished her work in the Larkspur Ferry Terminal’s shop, she boarded a ferry bound for City College of San Francisco’s Evans Campus for class. As the ferry skipped across the water, she told the Examiner she’ll soon get what she called an “opportunity of a lifetime” — working at the Golden Gate Bridge itself.
Norton’s last tour of duty on the apprenticeship will see her repair the vehicles that support Golden Gate Bridge maintenance staff.
There’s only one problem.
“I get nervous on bridges,” she said. “Sweaty palms.”
But the opportunity to pave the way for women to work at an international icon is too special to pass up, she said.
Women, on the whole, are “not necessarily being told we can do it,” she said. “If women see trades as an option, they’ll do it.”
It starts with her.