Seventeen year-old Catherine Mathewson has an eye for colour, and for cars.
Mathewson’s car painting skills just won her a silver medal at the Skills Canada trades contest in Mississauga, adding extra shine beside the bronze she won in Vancouver last year.
But by size alone, the Grade 12 student’s biggest prize is the blue car bumper she hauled home by bus and subway after winning first at a Skills Ontario qualifier in Waterloo.
“Last year I kind of filled up my room with car parts,” she says, smiling on a quick break from Bill Speed’s auto body class at Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute.
“Hopefully I can make a whole half-car.”
One year later, and with a lot more “gun time” under her belt, Mathewson was competing at Skills Canada once again.
Walking the huge, hangar-like conference centre in Mississauga, spectators at this year’s Skills Canada passed blowtorch demos, cook-offs, and a robot battle where a judge was yelling, “Nova Scotia, Nunavut, you’re on deck!”
The two-day contest brings high school, college, and university students together with teachers and judges from dozens of industries.
After one event at Skills Ontario last year, a judge from the BASF automotive paint company pulled Mathewson aside. The judge had noticed something on her paint chart.
Auto paints can be mixed from palettes of 40 colours or more, and tinted further after that. On her chart, Mathewson had notes by the variant code for each contributing colour that seemed slightly off – too light, too dark, or too tinted.
The BASF rep was impressed. Had she ever thought of being a colourist?
Mathewson’s thinking about it now.
“They sit in a lab and mix colours all day, and potentially they end up on cars,” she said. “It’s really neat, and they make a lot of money, too.”
“I’m pretty sure that BASF only hires women for that job – girls actually have a better eye for colour than men,” she added with a grin. “We also pay attention to detail, and are more patient.”
Mathewson hasn’t wasted any time waiting to kick her auto skills up a notch.
While at Danforth, she did two co-op jobs at auto shops. She also assisted a Centennial College professor in teaching an introductory class to students who were mostly in their twenties and thirties.
Just like at Danforth, most of the students were male.
“Start making friends with guys, because if you’re going into this trade, it’s mostly guys,” she said. “Some will be sexist and discriminate, but most of them will be open to it.”
In fact, Mathewson said so far it seems companies are looking to recruit women. And she certainly has a champion in her father, an aircraft mechanic, not to mention long-time Danforth autobody teacher and Skills Canada organizer, Bill Speed.
“I can’t keep up – my head just spins,” he said, speaking about all the work Mathewson has done in and out of school since she first joined his class in Grade 10.
Mathewson is one of the few students who might follow Speed’s own fast track in the industry. He remembers graduating high school in June, and starting his first apprenticeship in October. By 21, he was a licensed technician.
When Speed switched to teaching a decade later, there were 10 auto programs in the TDSB like the one at Danforth. Today he knows of four.
Declining enrolment is only part of the story. Speed said the number of high school students keen on auto careers is falling, as is the general skill level.
But the job market for auto techs remains strong, especially for those who stand out at Skills Canada. One former medalist was making $130,000 in 2010 as a third-year apprentice working exclusively on high-end cars.
As she graduates from Danforth, Mathewson has all she needs to get into an apprenticeship program, and no need for the two-year college course she was helping out in, or its $3,000 tuition.
“Everyone thinks I should open an all-women’s autobody shop,” she said. “But I don’t know if that would be my style.”