Maurine Simons is an unexpected face among the five-person automotive technology crew that works inside the repair and maintenance shop at South Kitsap School District’s bus barn.
Simons is nonchalant about her role as something of a pioneer in this male-dominated field. After all, only two women are known to work regionally as bus mechanics.
She wears the same uniform as her shop colleagues, shares the same tools used to work on school buses and speaks the same technical language as her male counterparts.
But just don’t call her “one of the boys.”
The 33-year-old mechanic, who has spent most of her life in South Kitsap, is philosophical about her place in this testosterone-fueled industry.
“I didn’t set out to be a trailblazer,” Simons said, “and I didn’t think I would be one.”
Simons, who lives in Bremerton with her husband Cole and son Henry, has always been mechanically inclined. “I always liked to know how things worked. When I was younger, I enjoyed building robots.
Her career goal initially pointed upward. Simons was awarded a four-year Navy ROTC scholarship to attend Purdue University in pursuit of a degree in aeronautical engineering. But mathematics — “math is not my strong suit,” she said — derailed those ambitions, along with an extended illness that forced her to leave school.
After a year at Purdue, she looked at different options within the aeronautical field. Unfortunately, a technical program in aircraft mechanics wasn’t nearby.
Returning to her South Kitsap roots, Simons enrolled in Olympic College’s automotive technology program. She graduated with an Associates in Technical Arts degree and ATA (Automotive Technician Accreditation) credentials.
Shortly after, Simons was asked to adjunct teach for the program.
“In the 101 class, the students’ faces on the first day showed me they were surprised a ‘girl’ was teaching the class.”
Asked if that was a problem, Simon laughed. “There was some skepticism, but that ended a day or two later when they figured out I was there for a reason.”
After working as an automotive technician, service adviser and manager in the detail center at Haselwood Chevrolet in Bremerton, Simons began subbing in the South Kitsap School District’s bus repair and maintenance shop in 2010, then joined the crew there as a full-time mechanic in September 2012.
The district transportation department has a fleet of 66 large buses and 34 special-needs buses, and each mechanic supports 20 of them.
While she’s raised the eyebrows of male mechanics and industry big-wigs at conferences and automotive competitions, her skill-set and problem-solving skills working on buses have only garnered her praise, regardless of her gender.
“When we were looking to hire a new mechanic,” said Jay Rosapepe, the district’s transportation director, “we wanted to hire the best candidate. Maurine was the best candidate — period. We don’t make distinctions here. I hired the best mechanic.”
Rosapepe emphasized that his shop crew is the best he’s had in his 16 years as director. The key, he said, is that crew members support each other.
“When Maurine went to a national competition last fall, it was because of the crew. They all agreed to cover for her absence. They support Maurine, and she supports them.”
While participating in job shadowing projects during her schooling, she had some industry managers tell her they’d never hire her because she is a female.
Simons acknowledges that attitudes in her industry are slow to change. While the obstacles for women usually aren’t that blatant, Simons has found that simple logistics have been a problem.
“At my first job, they didn’t have a locker room I could go to change, so they had to figure that out,” she said.
“It surprises me that there are things that people haven’t really thought about like that.”
At South Kitsap, Simons said that hasn’t been a problem since the transportation department employs women bus drivers and has female office staff.
While automotive work, whether on passenger cars or school buses, requires the same basic technical skills, the act of climbing up, under and inside a large, heavy school bus takes some getting used to. “It’s different for a mechanic working on buses than it is for cars,” she said.
“Everything is bigger. The brake system is different — air brakes versus hydraulics. Diesel engines are different from gas engines.”
Simons said working in the shop required her to learn about those differences on the job, up-close under the hood. “There wasn’t a diesel component at OC, so I needed to learn quickly.”
That’s perfectly fine with Simons, who said that “One of the great parts of this job is figuring out things.”
She said working in a small shop allows the team to brainstorm and talk over problems on the fly. “We work well sharing knowledge.”
The favorite part of her day involves working with engines. “It’s always a challenge and I always learn something.”
She said being a mechanic offers her daily surprises that keep her challenged.
“When a bus comes in for service, you never know what you’re going to get. It could need new brakes or it could need coolant. Each day is a little different.”
The national competition for bus mechanics this fall, staged in Richmond, Va., was her second time participating in the America’s Best School Bus Inspector and Inspector Skills and Training Competition.
And there, the reluctant trailblazer earned the distinction of being the first female competitor in the history of the national competition.
For Simons, her goal at the competition wasn’t necessarily to win, but to learn about her strengths and weaknesses.
“It was a great learning experience,” she said.
“Every year I go, I learn something, often from just connecting with my competitors there. We share our knowledge with each other.”
Even though it’s rare to find a woman who works as an automotive mechanic, that distinction shouldn’t discourage young girls from aspiring to enter the field, she said.
“I say ‘Go for it.’ But don’t go into any shop and expect things to change just because you’re a woman.”
There are some physiological limitations for women, especially those involving their upper body strength. But Simons said there’s a simple solution: “Just ask for help.”
She offered more advice: “Accept your weaknesses, but highlight your strengths and show how you can be an asset.
“Don’t expect to be one of the boys,” Simons said.
“Just be who you are. If you want it, go for it.
“The only person putting up barriers to your goal is yourself.”