Britney Cawrse: 'You can always learn a new skill'

Britney Cawrse would like to say there’s nothing unusual about being a woman in Linn-Benton Community College’s machine tool technology program. But given she was the only one this past academic year—and there was only one, on average, in recent years before that—she concedes most women don’t appear to be making that choice. 

And that, she said, is a shame. 

“It’s definitely something that women can do, because women were doing it in World War II when all the guys were at war and they had to keep the factories running,” she said. “They were some of the best welders and machiners out there.

“If they can do it then, we can definitely do it now.”

Cawrse, of Scio, hopes to eventually open or manage her own machine shop somewhere down the road. Now 36, she came to the profession a little later than some. Married to a mechanic and living on the Cawrse family farm, she was a stay-at-home mom for seven years. But she and her husband agreed it would be best to have a second income and a way of making a living on her own if anything should happen to him.

Cawrse said she’d been a special education assistant for the Scio School District in past years but didn’t feel that was right for her anymore. So she pulled out a newspaper and looked through the help-wanted ads.

“There were so many jobs for machinists,” she said. I’ve always been of the mind that whatever age you are, you can always learn a new skill.”

She called LBCC and inquired about enrolling in the program. And college officials called her back and invited her to Career Technical Education Signing Day, which happened to be the next day. “It was a little awkward for me, because it was full of high-schoolers,” she recalled. So was her first class, although at least two other participants were around her age. But she
wasn’t deterred.

“I was different, and I always love to stand out,” she said. “I love being different.” 

Besides feeling a little out of place age-wise, Cawrse was concerned she wouldn’t be able to keep up. 

“I love to sew and so I was just kind of hoping that it would kind of be like that. But it wasn’t,” she said. “It was a whole new world to me. It was kind of scary at first honestly, because big machinery is kind of intimidating. But they were really good about just kind of walking you through it.”

Cawrse was relieved to learn she wasn’t the only one in class with no experience. But after that, she didn’t have much time to think. The instruction was thorough, but fast-paced. She soon learned she didn’t have any time to be intimidated.

Her classmates, she said, never seemed to either notice or care that she was the only woman in the group. She said she sometimes felt the instructors were slightly harder on her than on her male counterparts, but in retrospect, she’s glad they were.

“A few weeks in, I realized they’re wanting me to succeed, so they’re pushing me a little bit harder, and I really appreciated that,” Cawrse said. “They were there constantly, not to bring me down but to make sure I succeeded to the best of my potential.”

Living on a farm with a mechanic spouse, Cawrse was lucky enough to have ready access to a machine shop when shelter-in-place orders came through and shut down campus classrooms. By then, she said, she’d learned at least the basics of shaping a piece of steel or aluminum into a part someone might need.

“I made a lot of bushings - like washers, but thicker,” she said. “My husband’s auto shop needed some parts made by machinists, so I just made some bushings for them. It was something I couldn’t have done the year before, for sure.” 

Cawrse said she’d advise anyone considering the LBCC program to jump in and do it. Don’t forget to ask for help, she said - the instructors are ready to assist at all times. 

"This whole school year was a rollercoaster ride for me. I felt like I just threw myself in the middle of the ocean without a life preserver, and I just had to swim. I had to learn to do it, and I couldn’t give up,” Cawrse said. 

Family support, particularly from her mother-in-law - a retired teacher - was critical, she said. That meant her sons, now 7 and 4, had help with homeschooling while she was doing her own homework.

“There was a lot of mom guilt. There still is. Am I spending enough time with my kids?” Cawrse said. “But I know in the end, it was all for them. They’re watching me now and I know that they’re learning so much more from me going back to school that I can ever imagine.” 

“I want them to know it’s OK to get their hands dirty.”