Julia Johnson,
Instructor at SkyLine College
San Bruno, CA

How long have you worked as an Auto Technician?

Julia worked three years in the automotive repair trades before joining the Skyline College faculty where she is tenured faculty in the Automotive Technology department. She teaches the Engine Repair and Rebuilding class as well as teaching and coordinating the Entry Level Tech program.

Did you take Shop in High School?

Julia did not take any automotive classes in high school. “I always wanted to know how to work on cars, but in my high school, you had to drop out and enroll in the Vo-Tech classes. I didn't want to commit to that in high school because you know, girls weren't really invited to the automotive industry back then in the 80s. I tried learning from my dad on the driveway, but that always resulted in handing tools and holding flashlights. I was never able to learn that way. Watching someone else not the same as learning.”

Did you attend Trade School? 

Years later after Julia’s youngest child was in preschool, she received a catalog in the mail from Skyline College in San Bruno, California. When she dropped it on the table, it opened to the automotive classes. “When I saw the auto pages, I thought 'you know, I really would like to do this' and I took my first class at Skyline. It was a weekend class where you worked on your own vehicle. I brought my 1964 Ford Galaxy, and I was like, ok, show me how!" After that first class, Julia was hooked. She was accepted to the full-time auto program and graduated in 2007.

Did trade school prep you for working in the real world?

The automotive program at Skyline provided Julia with a a solid understanding of the fundamentals and theory of repair. However, the auto program lacked a basic skills class and she felt completely unprepared for her first job in a shop. She found herself having to learn the skills while being expected to complete the work correctly and within the time limits, like an experienced tech. She said of this first job, "I got thrown in the deep end. I didn't get just thrown in the deep end - I got taken out in a boat, a mile off shore and chucked in the ocean".

What specific challenges did you face as a female working in an industry where 98% of the techs are male? How did you deal with those challenges?

Julia learned very quickly that there was a distinct difference in the way men and women communicate. She learned that if she responded to a question hesitantly that her coworkers thought she didn't know what she was doing. Even if she did have the correct answer. She learned that men equate confidence with competence.

Julia dealt with these differences in communication by watching her colleagues and responding like they would - with confidence in her work and in herself. It worked. When asked to give advice to a woman wanting to get into the industry, she said, "Confidence is key! Present yourself like you know what you're doing and you're proud of your work. Don't sell yourself short. Women often are hesitant to present themselves this way, but it is necessary to get along and get ahead in the automotive world."

How many different shops have your worked at? 

Julia worked several different shops. The first shop was a family-owned independent shop that performed general automotive for fleet accounts, working on Ford F-350s, plumber vans, locksmith trucks and other big vehicles. She worked at a very high-end European repair shop where she worked on the likes of Aston Martins, Bentleys, and old Rolls Royces, as well as late model BMWs, Mercedes and Porches. “That was an exciting experience which allowed me to hone my skills. My first job on my first day was diagnosing a no start on a '79 Jaguar. I learned so much at that shop!" She also worked for rental car shop busting out tires and doing oil changes on hundreds of cars in their fleet. She got really good at busting tires and doing oil changes.

What ASE Certifications do you have?

Julia has almost all her certifications, except Air Conditioning and Manual Transmission. She also has the L1: Advanced Engine Performance Specialist certification.

Do you feel ASE Certifications are important to have and maintain?

"Absolutely! ASE certifications are the gold standard in our industry and it's the only certifying body in our field. These certifications are the way you show that you possess a superior understanding of the vehicles. I always tell my students that their employer may not require ASEs to get hired, but you will be expected to earn them if you want to advance in your career and earn wage increases."

What are your words of wisdom for a new auto technician who is discouraged?

Julia says, "Just remember, even when you get into the industry, you will always to be learning. You're never going to know everything. Nobody knows everything. Even the people who have been in the industry for 30 years are still learning. So don't feel bad because you don't know everything. You will get there. Just take every opportunity to learn more - read articles, go to seminars, complete online training for your employer, earn your ASEs and go to school. And don't be hard on yourself - everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes spectacular failures...in front of the boss... and your coworkers...and the customers. Ask me how I know!"

Why did you decide to become an Automotive Shop Teacher?
Julia started teaching part-time at Skyline when she was still a student. After a year of automotive classes, she felt like she knew enough to offer a basic auto class. She created her first class, "Car Care Basics for Women" and was teaching the class through various Parks and Recreation departments in surrounding cities. When she told her mentor, the department coordinator, he said, "You should be teaching that here?" She has been teaching ever since.

What do you enjoy most about being an Automotive Shop Instructor?

Julia feels that teaching automotive techology is her dream job. "I love being able to help young people gain skills to begin fabulous careers. I love helping them find a direction in life and pursue it with confidence. I especially enjoy watching them learn and grow over the course of the program. It's the best job I could ever have."
In addition to teaching, Julia wrote and won multiple grants to recruit and retain women in the auto program at Skyline. Her recruiting methods were a huge success and Skyline went from one female graduate in 10 years to 12 young women enrolling in the auto program. The female students decided to form a club, which they named "The Heart Wrenchers".

The club members decided they wanted to use their automotive skill to help low-income families. They put together a series of of car care clinic where they did inspections, maintenance, and repairs for people who could not otherwise afford it. They found sponsorship for their events, got donated cars, fixed them up and gave them to the low-income families. They gave workshops for Girl Scouts and the Boys and Girls Club and at the "Expanding Your Horizons" event that introduced over 100 high school and middle school girls to STEM careers. “That was a really great experience and excellent use of their skill to help others. They were a great group of young women. I miss them!"

What is the top challenge you face as a Shop Instructor?

Convincing the students of the value of education and that they need to invest in any learning opportunities that come their way. She also has found that that she needed to adapt her teaching to accommodate a variety of learning disabilities. "That was difficult," she said. "I had to learn on the fly and make changes to everything I did while the semester was in progress. I didn't know anything about learning disabilities until I could see them in the classroom."

Do you feel that continuing education is important for technicians?

"I can see in just the last five years, how dramatically the technology on vehicles has changed. If you're not constantly learning, you're going to get left behind very quickly, especially in the world of ADAS: Advanced driver-assistance systems. And just around the corner are self-driving cars. Electric vehicles and hybrid are old news at this point.”

How do you see your job or this industry changing in the next 10 years? 

"That's an excellent question.” Julia feels that everyone in the education world is “trying to figure out what do we need to be teaching now so our technicians will be marketable when they get out of school.”
Julia feels that technicians need to know the basic mechanical principles, the four-stroke cycle and things like that, but emerging technologies out of EVs, hybrids, ADAS, and digitalization will be the skill sets in demand. And even more so, as new inventions hit the market.