Auto mechanics

She repairs forklifts, breaks glass ceilings in the auto mechanic industry

When the manager of a local steel company saw Kittra Headtke enter recently, he assumed she had come to fill the first aid kit. He was surprised to learn why she was there: to fix a broken forklift.

“He says, ‘No way’,” Headtke said.

Despite working in the auto industry for 13 years, the 34-year-old forklift technician still gets a lot of disbelieving looks and sexist comments when she shows up for a job. “It happens all the time, pretty much every day,” she said.

To say that Headtke is in a male dominated industry is an understatement. According to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 2.7 percent of auto service technicians and mechanics in the United States are women. The statistics are even more skewed for mechanics who work on heavy equipment and motorized service vehicles: less than 1%.

Everywhere she goes, Headtke can’t help but shatter a new glass ceiling. In 2006, she was the first woman to graduate from a General Motors Automotive Service training program at Ranken Technical College in St. Louis.

Kittra Headtke, a mechanic represented by Auto Mechanics Local 701, works to repair a forklift at the equipment depot in Itasca on Tuesday morning, October 1, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

“They were giving out watches to graduates, and it was funny because they were so used to giving away men’s watches that they had to order one especially for me,” Headtke said.

She was the first female technician in all of the auto dealerships she worked in and the only female shop steward in the history of IAMAW Local 701 of Auto Mechanics.

But it was not easy, especially at the beginning.

The oldest of seven siblings and a self-proclaimed tomboy who grew up in the western suburbs of Carpentersville, Headtke first fell in love with mechanics in high school. “I learned how to rebuild a lawn mower engine in a classroom, and it blew me away so I wanted to learn more,” she said. “I loved how much it challenged me both physically and mentally. “

After high school, she moved to St. Louis, where she obtained a diploma in automotive technician training. Getting an internship turned out to be a major struggle. After every car dealership she applied to turned her down, she finally convinced someone in downtown Belleville to let her work for free in order to get enough credit to graduate.

“Nobody was ready, or they were afraid to have a female mechanic,” she said.

Sometimes it’s the clients who have preconceived ideas about it – and not always just the men. Headtke recalls being devastated when an elderly woman refused to let her work on her car because she didn’t trust another woman to do the job properly. “And all I did was spin his tires,” she said.

For Headtke, all of the reviews have become like bulletin board material – added motivation to become the best mechanic you can be. “There were a lot of people who thought they were smarter than me and better than me. All I ever wanted to do is just prove someone wrong, ”she said.

Kittra Headtke gets behind the wheel of a forklift
Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Sun-Times

It’s a philosophy she maintained despite a career change in 2017, when she left the world of car dealerships to become a union mechanic. For the past 18 months, she has worked as a field technician for the equipment depot at a full service lifting facility in Itasca. Most of the work involves hopping in your truck and going to various factories and job sites to fix forklifts.

Believe it or not, forklifts run in the family. His father exploited them for work, and one of his brothers worked on combines and forklifts. She may not necessarily pass the family craft down to her 8-year-old daughter, Raelee Kay Payne, she says. “We are like opposites. She doesn’t like to get dirty.

Either way, Headtke believes she is a role model who can show her daughter and other girls that it is possible for a woman to thrive in spaces traditionally ruled by men.

“It’s good to get women to get more involved and say, ‘Hey, if this is something you like. Dark. If it’s something you love, do it no matter who you are.