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Aspiring auto mechanic Kien Thay's dream job is not just for guys

Kien Thay in Pasadena City College's automotive shop
Kien Thay in Pasadena City College's automotive shop
Katherine Garrova

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Kien Thay loves cars. She says she's most at home when she's working on a car.

At 31, Kien makes a living as a waitress. She spends her time off scouring junkyards and eBay listings to find any car part she can fix and turn a profit on. With her friends and family, she's the person to go to when their cars act up. 

Kien remembers telling her dad she wanted to work on cars full-time. Her dad said he was proud of her, but he felt sorry for her, too. Being a mechanic is "such a guy's job," he told her. 

But don't expect Kien to linger on her struggles, on the difficulties of being a woman in a role where many expect to see a guy. Kien knows the automotive world is still male-dominated, and she admits that she gets the occasional surprised look when she tells someone what she wants to do. But Kien says she doesn't have the time for all that. Her perspective changed with the first death of a close friend she had experienced. Her friend had always encouraged her to pursue her love of cars, but the advice never stuck. "It's a very sad moment," Kien says. "But after he passed away, that's when I thought, let's make this move, let's make this change. I feel like it's now or never."

Today, Kien hasn't lost focus. She's top of her shop classes and applying for scholarships so she can continue her studies. To Kien, the car world doesn't have to be just a man's game. According to her, many people expect to see only guys working on cars for a lot of outdated reasons. "I think it's the labor," Kien says. "You're required to carry at least 50 pounds of weight. It has a lot to do with strength."

But for Kien, the whole strength thing just doesn't make any sense. "If this is such a guy's job, are they torquing the nuts with their hands?" she asks. "The same amount of work they can do with this tool is the same amount of work I can do with this tool. So if this is such a guy's job, they are more than welcome to torque it with their hands if they wanted to." 

Kien sees the auto industry changing, and she's happy she's not the only woman in her shop classes. "I'm actually progressing with a group of five women that I see consistently," Kien says. "So, to see them move forward, it gives me the confidence, knowing that I can do this just as well as anybody can."

Kien's only regret is not having started earlier. "I think that I would have found my path sooner," she says.