The Eleven Percent: Meet Mary Kehl, Handyman Apprentice and Medic

Mary Kehl talks about switching careers later in life, building a house and what's in her tool bag.

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As a woman in her 50s, Mary Kehl is not your typical apprentice. After careers as a firefighter, EMT/paramedic and physician assistant, she’s just now embarking on her newest endeavor — becoming a handyman.

“After thirty years I was ready for a change,” she says. “I still really enjoy working with patients and helping people, but I needed something to spark my interest and make me feel like I was learning new things.”

She always enjoyed DIYing and decided to attend the Construction Skills Bootcamp Program at the Build Strong Academy in Colorado. Upon graduation, she got a job with Handyman Connection of Golden, Colorado. She works with master craftsmen, learning residential home remodeling and maintenance.

“There have been a lot of naysayers, asking me why I’m changing careers and why I’d want to be a handyman,” she says. “But I’ve always liked building and fixing things, and problem-solving. It just fits my personality. So I won’t let them hold me back.”

She’s only been at the job for a couple of months, but so far she says it’s a great fit. It offers a flexible schedule to accommodate her work as a medic with the National Guard, and the variety of tasks keeps her mind entertained.

“The owner, Docia, is a female, so she was super excited to have another female on board,” she says. “And the guys are great about explaining how to do things and expanding my knowledge and skill set.”

We asked Kehl for her thoughts on being an apprentice and the state of the handyman industry.

Q: What’s it like being an apprentice now, and starting a new career?

A: It’s been really good. I’ve enjoyed the guys I work with. They’re nice about teaching me, and they have great skills.

There’s a challenge, because I’m not in the same physical condition that I was when I was in my 20s or 30s. But I’m still in pretty good shape, and I can still lift a 4×8 sheet of plywood by myself if I need to. I can still move lumber and pound nails, but I’ve had to prove that a little bit.

Q: What projects stand out to you?

A: The project that I’m most proud of is a house I built with my partner when I was on the fire department back in 2000. Family, friends and a lot of coworkers helped.

Firefighters helped put up the walls and the roof. We had stucco parties. It was a lot of camaraderie. And at the end of the day, we’d have a barbecue, drink a beer and watch the sunset after a hard day’s work. It was a great introduction to building.

As for the apprenticeship, I haven’t been there long. But we built a shed kit for a customer, which was just going step by step, reading through the instructions. We also worked through the punch list at a senior living facility, fixing toilets, hanging up mirrors and fixing light fixtures.

Q: What changes have you seen during the last 10 years?

Mary Kehl using a saw in a workshop

A: While being a firefighter, I saw plenty of women who were welders, electricians or plumbers, or had their own side landscaping business. But now I see that more and more.

It’s great that women are feeling empowered to try trade skills, do what they want and not follow gender or societal norms like, “Oh, you can’t do that because you’re a female.” That needs to continue, and I think it will. I think there’s a lot of positive energy out there.

Q: Any pros or cons to being a woman in the trades?

A: When I got on the fire department, there were 12 women and around 200 guys, so it was a rough start. Nobody ever said anything negative to me, but occasionally I’d hear rumors that guys were mumbling about us behind our backs. Same with the National Guard, though most of the guys were very welcoming.

Going into the trades today, there’s a little bit of a hurdle to overcome not only being a woman, but being an older woman. Even though it’s not said directly, they see the gray hair and the wrinkles, and probably a few people are wondering if the job will be too fatiguing for me. I don’t know if an older guy would have the same thing, because people would still assume he could do physical labor all day in his fifties and sixties.

One advantage of being a woman, though, is that I have a tendency to be pretty patient. I think I’ve got good customer service skills and a tendency to be particular. I want to make sure things are done right and look aesthetically pleasing. I think a lot of women are like that, which can be an advantage, and complimentary when working with a guy.

Q: Any advice for young women looking to get into the trades?

A: Pursue your interests. Don’t be afraid to give it a try. And if you try a career and decide it’s not for you, it’s okay to change. But don’t let somebody tell you, “Oh, you’re a woman, you can’t do it. You’re too little. You’re not strong enough.” Don’t let people discourage you, because no matter what you do in life, you’re going to get some naysayers.

Honestly, I was a little shocked when I was asked to do this interview. I almost said no, but I decided I should try to be a role model for other women who want to change careers, or who want a career in the trades. It’s great for women to see there are no true gender jobs. You can do whatever you want.

Q: What are your pro-specific tools?

tool bag and tools spread out on a concrete floorCourtesy Mary Kehl

A: When I finished the Construction Skills Boot Camp, I was given a really nice tool bag. It’s a Husky tool bag with a 16-oz. hammer, a 21-oz. framing hammer, a speed square, a level, a chalk line and a measuring tape. Then I’ve got eye protection and gloves. So that’s my basic tool bag.

And then based on whatever job we’re doing, I have extra tools, like my painting or drywall setups. So my tool collection expands based on what type of job I’ll be going to.

Mary Kehl Bio

After careers in firefighting and medicine, Mary switched gears, joining Handyman Connection in Golden, Colorado, as an apprentice. She also works one week each month as a physician assistant with the Arizona National Guard and recently graduated from Build Strong Academy in Colorado, where she took their Construction Skills Bootcamp Program. Her newest goal is to create a career for herself helping homeowners keep their properties well maintained.

Writer Karuna Eberl Bio

Karuna Eberl is a regular contributor to She has spent the last 25 years as a freelance journalist and filmmaker, telling stories of people, nature, travel, science and history. She has won numerous awards for her writing, her Florida Keys Travel Guide and her documentary, The Guerrero Project.

Karuna Eberl
A freelance writer and indie film producer, Karuna Eberl covers the outdoors and nature side of DIY, exploring wildlife, green living, travel and gardening for Family Handyman. She also writes FH’s Eleven Percent column, about dynamic women in the construction workforce. Some of her other credits include the March cover of Readers Digest, National Parks, National Geographic Channel and Atlas Obscura. Karuna and her husband are also on the final stretch of renovating an abandoned house in a near-ghost town in rural Colorado. When they’re not working, you can find them hiking and traveling the backroads, camping in their self-converted van.