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She fixes forklifts, smashes glass ceilings in auto mechanics industry

Kittra Headtke tells girls and women: “If it’s something you love, do it no matter who you are.”

When the manager of a local steel company saw Kittra Headtke walk in recently, he assumed she’d come to refill the first aid kit. He was surprised to learn why she was actually there: to fix a broken forklift.

“He goes, ‘No way,’” Headtke said.

Despite working in the automotive industry for 13 years, the 34-year-old forklift technician still earns plenty of incredulous looks and sexist comments when she shows up to do a job. “It happens all the time, just about every day,” she said.

To say that Headtke is in a male-dominated industry is an understatement. Only 2.7 percent of auto service technicians and mechanics in the U.S. are women, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The statistics are even more skewed for mechanics who work on heavy and motor equipment service vehicles: Less than 1 percent.

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

Kittra Headtke, a mechanic represented by Automobile Mechanics Local 701, works to repair a forklift at Equipment Depot in Itasca, Tuesday morning, Oct. 1, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

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

She’s been the first female technician at every auto dealership she’s ever worked at and the only female union steward in the history of Automobile Mechanics’ Local 701 IAMAW.

But it hasn’t been easy — especially at first.

The oldest of seven siblings and a self-described tomboy growing up in the western suburb of Carpentersville, Headtke first fell in love with mechanics in high school. “I learned how to rebuild a lawnmower engine in a class, and it just blew my mind so I wanted to learn more,” she said. “I loved how much it challenged me both physically and mentally.”

Following high school she moved to St. Louis, where she earned a degree in automotive technician training. Landing an internship turned out to be a major struggle. After every car dealership she applied to rejected her, she finally convinced one in downstate Belleville to let her work for free in order to get enough credits to graduate.

“No one was ready, or they were afraid to have a female mechanic,” she said.

Sometimes, it’s customers who have preconceived notions about her — and not always just men. Headtke recalls being devastated the time an elderly woman refused to let her work on her car because she didn’t trust another woman to do the job right. “And all I was doing was rotating her tires,” she said.

For Headtke, all of the naysaying has become like bulletin board material — extra motivation to become the best mechanic possible. “There were plenty of people who thought they were smarter than me and better than me. All I’ve ever wanted to do is just prove somebody wrong,” she said.

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

It’s a philosophy she’s maintained despite switching gears career-wise in 2017, when she left the world of auto dealerships to become a union mechanic. For the past 18 months, she’s worked as a field technician for full-service lift facility Equipment Depot in Itasca. Most of the job requires jumping in her truck and traveling to various factories and work sites to repair forklifts.

Believe it or not, forklifts run in the family. Her father operates them for work, and one of her brothers works on combines and forklifts. She may not necessarily pass on the family trade to her 8-year-old daughter, Raelee Kay Payne, she says. “We’re like opposites. She doesn’t like getting dirty.”

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

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