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Chaya Milchtein of "Mechanic Shop Femme" with her car Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019 in Brookfield, Wis. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Chaya Milchtein’s first memory of a car is her mom — then seven months pregnant — trying to jump-start the family’s 1995 Chevy Express.

“Throughout my childhood, I always remember my mother trying to finagle stuff with the car,” Milchtein said in a phone interview. The oldest child of ultra-Orthodox Jewish parents, she said she felt at odds with her conservative upbringing and often sneaked off to the library to read the books banned at home. “My mother was married for 25 years with 15 kids, so most of the time she was pregnant. I remember wishing she knew how to do more. I wish she had more understanding of how things can be done — but it never really crossed my mind to get into the automotive field.”

But, that’s exactly where life dropped her off.

With a finely tuned, informative blog and a series of online course offerings, Milchtein, 24, calls herself the “Mechanic Shop Femme.” Her mission: to put the steering wheel back in the hands of women, femmes and queer folks. Online posts include topics like “Saying No in the Mechanic Shop” and “My Car Isn’t Starting, Now What?” while rotating classes on Facebook Live address questions such as “How the Heck Do I Buy a Used Car?”

And the results seem fruitful: Students praise her ability to distill complicated subjects into simplified concepts.

“She encouraged questions and made everyone feel comfortable asking them, assuring us that there were no stupid questions,” wrote a “Car Maintenance 101” class member under the username Hella W. “I can’t wait to take another class with her.”

Parks Dunlap, another online student, said, “I walked away from the class feeling like I had a handle on how to manage my car’s checkups and not be in the dark when I go to the shop.”

Milchtein says her quest to educate others arose from her own experiences of disempowerment.

“I went into foster care when I was 16, and when I was aging out at 18, I had a very difficult time finding a job. A kind person knew the HR manager at the local Sears and offered to set me up with an interview,” she described. When Milchtein arrived, they asked her which department she wanted to work in.

“I didn’t know. I had political training, and I had done a lot of activism work. I couldn’t imagine myself starting a career folding clothes,” Milchtein said. So, she told them, “Whatever department makes the most money.”

“We ended up in cars. I didn’t even have my driver’s license. I had never driven a car. But, I started working at Sears as a service adviser, and they taught me everything I knew. Three months later, I transferred to the Sears in Brooklyn, New York, from Milwaukee,” she continued. “Within six months, I became top 10 in the country in sales.”

Milchtein attributes her quick success to the educational relationships she forged with customers.

“I always wanted the customer to learn the car. I wanted to educate the customer, and I wanted to educate myself. I wanted to understand everything about what I was selling, all information I was providing,” she recounted. “That way, when people got a repair, they knew it was the repair they needed and that their money was well spent.”

After beginning the blog in summer 2017, Milchtein bounced back from New York and landed in Milwaukee at the beginning of 2018, this time looking to put down roots. Instead, what she found was a workforce that mistrusted her abilities because of her gender.

“In New York, people are a little more open-minded, and if you prove yourself, they’re likely to give you a chance. But, when I moved back here, I couldn’t find a job, even though I had a boatload of experience,” she said. “When car people talk to me about cars, it’s pretty clear I know what I am talking about — but I couldn’t get an interview.” Eventually, she started a new gig under an owner who wouldn’t even let her answer the phone.

“Then I went on to work for a dealership. I was really disappointed. I loved the fact that I was able to focus on one specific vehicle, but it was very difficult to work as an ethical person. I was constantly asked to bend the truth and at times even lie to the customer about repairs. Their rate was $99/hour, but they actually charged closer to $125/hour by increasing labor time. They would spray rear main seals with oil and charge the extended warranty company to replace them.”

While she did finally land a solid position, Milchtein believes the job search shouldn’t be so perilous. “This industry doesn’t have enough talent. It doesn’t have enough people. It’s desperate for good folks, but it’s not even considering those right in front of them.”

In fact, the role of women and femmes in car repair is meager — according to Catalyst, an organization that works to remove gender barriers in the workforce, women make up 9.6 percent of automotive repair and maintenance employees. Sixty-five percent of these employees reported being tasked with lower-level assignments compared with their male peers; the same number reported unwanted sexual advances.

Nevertheless, Milchtein persists. Just don’t call her a mechanic — she considers herself an automotive educator.

“I feel like I have maxed out my potential in mechanical. I have been a service manager at major places,” she said. “But, the bigger jobs are not customer-facing. The education aspect, and the working with people, that’s what I am here for, that’s my passion.”

“Education was always very important to me. I always felt like not having the resources to educate yourself is one of the worst things in the world. I wanted to create a space where you not only had the right resource, you had it from somebody who was like you.”

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