Meet Helen and Clair from Aylesbury College

Meet Helen and Clair from Aylesbury College

For female students to consider careers in the motor industry we need inspiring women in educational roles to set an example and help them towards their career goals. Two such inspiring individuals are Helen Carter (left in photo) and Clair Thomas (right in photo) from Aylesbury College in Buckinghamshire. Both are members of the Institute of the Motor Industry (IMI) and appear on the industry’s Professional Register. Their interviews and respective answers appear below.

As you can see from the photo, there are definite rewards for being female especially when they were quick to volunteer to coordinate the 2014 Mark Webber Youth Challenge event at Silverstone. Mark lives in Buckinghamshire and is the Patron of the Aylesbury College Trust (ACT), helping raise money for students who cannot afford to attend college.

About Helen Carter, College Lecturer in Motor Vehicle, Aylesbury College

Q/ Tell us about you and your career to date Helen…

I grew up around cars. My family owned a body repair business and I spent the majority of my childhood helping my dad to prepare cars for painting. I was always very comfortable in the garage environment .

I started my career as an Apprentice Vehicle Technician with a race team in NW London, building Caterham race cars and supporting them at race meetings.

I remember the first ever race meeting I went to. I was 19, it was a rainy and windy day at Snetterton in the middle of October in 1996, I got absolutely drenched but I knew this was the career I was going to have.

I spent a further six years in motorsport, working my way up the Formula levels. I eventually worked my way up to be a Race Mechanic for a GT team and was lucky enough to support the team at a race in the USA, as well as other European race events.

In 2002 I decided to settle with one company and I made the move into the retail motor industry, getting a job with a Porsche dealer. At the time I was the only female mechanic working across the entire UK network. This was a huge change for me, but I was meticulous in my work, working on cars worth £250,000 and more. I picked things up quickly.

In 2005, I saw an advert for a Technical Trainer with EMTEC (East Midlands Training and Education Centre) working in the company’s Watford-based Nissan training centre.

From there, I got a job in Further Education teaching future vehicle technicians. I really enjoy teaching apprentices, as you are getting them ready for the world of work, and they trust you because you are teaching them how to do their job and have industry experience

This is my 10th academic year of teaching and I still get involved with fixing cars, as our College has a commercial garage that runs alongside the learning environment which I enjoy.

Out of the 100 learners we have on our courses, there are just three girls, so the industry is still facing a huge divide. I hope in the future we’ll see more women wanting to work in the Motor Industry. There is a lot of support from organisations and on social media – we are all encouraging girls to give it a go.

Q/ How can we attract more women into the motor industry?

At Aylesbury College, I work with a great team of men and women. Our Assessor is also female (Clair Thomas, below) and we are really keen to challenge any gender stereotyping.

I wish that there was as much support for females in the industry when I was starting out. I had to work extra hard to be taken seriously. When we were at races, working in the pits, even though I was more than qualified as a mechanic, I would sometimes be asked to carry the umbrella over the driver’s head on the grid, and once I was even offered a job as the race team leader’s secretary.

Even so, I wish that some race series would drop today’s grid girls as this practice is very outdated.

I believe the historical prejudices will soon start to fade. My students, for example, don’t know any different than being taught by a woman, so I hope when they go into their workplaces, they will be far more accepting of women as we move up the career ladder.

Q/ If you could choose any car to drive, what would it be?

I have had some really nice cars and motorbikes in the past but if I could have any car in the world it would be a Porsche 911 GT2.

About Clair Thomas, Motor Vehicle Assessor Trainer, Aylesbury College

Q/ Please tell us about you Clair and your career to date.

My interest as a child wasn’t specifically related to cars, but I certainly grew up as a tomboy with a fascination for the way things work. My father is an electrical engineer, my grandfather an ejector seat engineer and great grandfather was a carpenter. Growing up around people with an innate ability to build, fix and explain things clearly influenced me at an early age.

By my early teenage years, fixing my push bike or tinkering with anything else I could get away with became the norm. I knew I never wanted a mundane job in an office, so when the opportunity of work experience at a local car dealership came up, I jumped at the chance. I returned there to work for free during my Easter holidays and loved every minute.

I left school and started a four year apprenticeship when I was just 15 years old and although many people made comments about me being a girl in a mans world, I never saw myself as anything other than another Apprentice.

I decided early on that, in order to be taken seriously, I would need to be better than all the boys, never just as good as. A few years later I was a runner up in a dealer-wide Technician of the Year competition, beating a couple of hundred other entrants.

After my apprenticeship I attended Oxford College for a 3 further years to study Motor Vehicle Management, Technology and Engineering. It was a college full of gas fitters, electricians and IT guys but being the only girl on campus only spurred me on to achieve more. Collecting my final certificates from the Technical Director of Williams Formula 1 was definitely a highlight, and they also gave me my first taste of teaching when I took evening classes.

My thirst for knowledge continues to this day and all these years later I am still passionate about cars and the motor trade. It’s a tough industry whatever gender you are, but sharing my experience and knowledge, and learning from my students still gives me a buzz. Being an Assessor keeps me inside the garages and dealing with students on a day to day basis in their own environment with real life situations.

Q/ Have you ever experienced sexism, Clair?

I can honestly say most people have been fully supportive of my career choice and I can’t really think of a single situation where I’ve encountered blatant sexism. Silly workshop banter yes, bullying and sexism, definitely not.

Of course, I would like to see more women in the motor trade although the long hours, tough working conditions and initial poor pay does put many off. In order to succeed, you need to be physically and mentally strong, possess good problem solving skills, initiative, patience, be a good communicator and above all have a passion for cars. If you are all of these things I would say go for it; the only thing holding you back is you!


Here’s how to find out more about Aylesbury College and the courses on offer.

And this is the Mark Webber Giving It Back website and why Mark does the charitable work he does.

“I’ve visited a few hospitals in Australia,” says Mark, “and it’s in those places that I’ve seen people who were much less fortunate than me. People for whom every day is a struggle. As I started to do well out of my own profession, it made me want to give something back and to help people back home. I don’t like to shout about it, but that’s my philosophy and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”

He mightn’t want to shout about it but we want to on his behalf. Thank you Mark.

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