Shateeka Allen, Auto Factory Employee

A woman dons a blue work jumpsuit and safety glasses while working in a car factory.
Shateeka Allen, the paint-team specialist at Indiana’s Subaru plant, catches what the robots miss.

Photograph by Matthew Gilson

When Shateeka Allen first showed up at Subaru in Lafayette, her male coworkers joked she would never last.

With her sparkling pink nails and lush lashes, Allen didn’t look like a car-factory worker. She looked like a hair stylist, her former career. But when the recession hit in 2008, many ladies cut back on luxuries, and Allen needed a job. Her best friend urged her to consider Subaru. Allen initially resisted.

“I remember thinking, I am not going to work in a factory,” says Allen, 40, a Kokomo native who has two children. “I’m not a factory girl.”

The beginning was rough. Placed on the Trim and Final assembly line—one of the last stops on the 16 miles of conveyor—she got behind and skipped a car, leaving the vehicle without a heater. Her pace was so slow that a coworker warned she was going to wind up on “38.” Route 38, that is. The highway. That got her moving.

With 11 years under her belt, Allen can laugh at all this now. She mostly works in the Paint department as a production assistant, but was also selected for the elite CFI (Customer Focus Items) team, the last crew examining the cars before they leave the plant. In this key post, you have to be decisive and accountable.

“They thought she was a good person to put there,” says Allie Louthen, Subaru’s tour and event coordinator. “That’s the final line of defense.”

Founded in 1989, the massive Subaru of Indiana factory in Lafayette is the automaker’s only production facility outside Japan. The numbers are staggering. Eight hundred acres. More than 4.5 million square feet of floor space. Nearly 6,000 employees build as many as 1,500 new cars every day. The entire vehicle is made on site, moving through four production areas—Stamping, Body, Paint, Trim & Final.

“I remember thinking, I am not going to work in a factory. I’m not a factory girl.”

Robots paint the cars, but humans check their work. Most days, Allen scrutinizes the paint on Legacies, Outbacks, and Ascents that glide past her, one a minute. If she sees an irregularity, she buffs it out, or, if it’s really bad, rejects the car entirely and sends it to Repair. She gets a 10-minute break every two hours—she sits and reads—and a half-hour for lunch. She keeps switching duties on the line to keep her judgment fresh.

Allen says she loves her job. Coworker Deb Hiatt keeps her laughing.

“We get along great. We have a good time,” confirms Hiatt, a 25-year veteran.

An esthetician at heart, Allen looks glamorous in blue coveralls and comfy black sneakers. Though she likes to smell nice, perfume at work is a no-no. When you work Paint, you can’t wear certain lotions and shampoo, which can cause the paint job to “crater,” leaving an unsightly lunar surface. Before each shift, workers must pass a hand test to be sure they’re not wearing products that could cause defects. They also take a 10-second air shower, blowing dust off their bodies.

The mood is jovial and efficient on the line, where thanks to enormous overhead lights, it is startlingly bright. The conveyor belts clank, but not so loudly you can’t crack a joke. Though friendly, Allen doesn’t like to go into anything too deep while she’s working. “Small conversation is good for me,” she says. “I don’t want to hear your whole day. I have to focus.”

On black cars, glitches are easy to spot. “We can’t stand white cars,” Allen says. She shows off a tiny blip just under a window, a scratch the size of a grain of rice. “I’m not giving you my $23,000 with that itty-bitty scratch,” she says.

Allen moonlights as a hairstylist when she craves a new purse, but she says she’s at Subaru now to stay. As she strolls through the cavernous maze of conveyor belts and shifting car carcasses, she reminisces. The first day, she was so disoriented she warned her supervisor she was going to be late every shift. “I’m going to get lost,” she told him. “Someone is going to have to come get me.’”

Her boss advised her to show up like everyone else. “Princess did,” Allen says, laughing at herself. “She found her way to her job.”