Haley Krueger got duped into collision repair. That’s right: hoodwinked, hornswoggled, swindled, whatever term you want to use. Her friend Tyler asked her if she would attend summer school auto body class at Bismarck State College with him, and she agreed. Problem is, Tyler bailed from the class shortly after it began. A funny thing happened, though: Haley fell in love with collision repair.
“It was just different,” Krueger said. “I had always been good in school and good at math, but this was something hands-on where I didn’t have to rely on anybody and I really enjoyed doing it.”
At first, she said it was “weird” being surrounded by boys, who gave her funny looks.
“But I met a lot of awesome friends in that class,” she says.
Other girls at her school, Bismarck High School in Bismarck, N.D., laughed at her and ridiculed her.
“They thought it was dumb,” she said. “A lot of them told me I was just doing it because of the guys. But it had nothing to do with that. I was doing it for me because I loved it.”
It turned out Krueger was good at it, too, particularly refinishing. She took second place in automotive refinishing technology in her state’s SkillsUSA competition, where students compete against one another in different trades. The first-place winner earned a trip to the SkillsUSA Championships, but was unable to go, which opened the door for Krueger. She placed 25th out of 38 contestants there.
Krueger is still undecided about whether she wants to pursue collision repair as a career, but even if she doesn’t, she said she would always make room for it as a hobby. Currently, she and her boyfriend work together to fix any damage they inflict on their own cars. And they’re going to start restoring an old Corvette her boyfriend’s dad recently bought.
Krueger’s experience at SkillsUSA made her an enthusiastic endorser of the auto body trade.
“I’m trying to get my three little sisters into it, and I also tell their friends and my friends,” she said. “I recommend it to everyone because it’s such an awesome thing. It’s so much fun and you learn so much and it opens up so many opportunities.”
Her advice to other women contemplating a career in collision repair is to always believe they can do it. “Don’t let anyone tell you that guys are the only ones,” she said. “You can’t worry about things, but you do have to have a thick skin. You can’t let the guys push you around. I would rather push the guys around instead.”
Her other advice would be, “Practice makes perfect.” She has done a lot of airbrushing and really likes designing with color…but it has taken some work to perfect her skills.
“You have to practice,” she says. “I enjoy practicing. I have a good eye, but it’s all about technique.”
Krueger feels there is a dearth of young people entering the industry in part because of a lack of information.
“I think it needs to be advertised more,” she said. “I never even knew we had an auto body program at our school.”
She feels that if she does decide to pursue an auto body career full-time, she’ll have no problem finding a job because of her training and accomplishments at SkillsUSA.
You might call Alley Domar a pioneer. She was the first female student in the automotive technology program at Waubonsee Community College in Illinois in more than 20 years, and she was the first female ever to graduate from the school’s auto body program.
“And now this year there are two girls in auto tech and one girl in auto body. That makes me really happy,” Domar said.
Domar finished in first place in auto refinishing in her state Skills-USA competition, earning a trip to the national competition where she placed eighth. All of these accomplishments led to a fairly easy entry into the work world: a full-time job as a body tech/auto tech/office manager for Last Chance Garage in Virgil, Ill.
“I had initially been looking for a job at a shop that had been around longer and was a little more sturdy, but I was having problems finding one,” she said. “The owner of Last Chance had been asking me to work for him for some time, so I went with him and it has worked out for the best so far.”
The first person in her family to work in collision repair, Domar decided after graduating from high school that auto body was her destiny because she had always had an interest in working on cars.
“I like everything about it, whether the work is mechanical or body,” said Domar. “Body work is like an art form, and I like art a lot.”
In fact, Domar paints in her spare time and is currently working on a mural on one of the walls at Last Chance Garage that will depict old times in the town of Virgil.
She also considers restoring cars an art form and devotes much time to this hobby as well. She’s currently restoring a ’66 El Camino for a neighbor who heard about her skills. She works on it on weeknights and also keeps a fender and a tailgate at her day job so she can work on them on slow days.
“Restoring older vehicles is like restoring American history,” she said. “You’re taking something that was once so beautiful back in the day and making it beautiful again.”
Domar admits that she was a bit nervous when she first started in the auto body program at Waubonsee because she was the only female. Her classmates’ initial reaction, she says, was, “My God, there’s a girl in here!” But she says her transition was easy because everyone made her comfortable and offered help whenever she needed it.
Her girlfriends’ initial reaction to her career choice was positive, too.
“They applauded me for taking on such a challenge,” said Domar. “They felt empowered by me to do what they wanted because I did what I wanted to do and I made it.”
Domar said her mom asked her more than a few times if she was sure she wanted to pursue a career in collision repair, saying it would be a tough road to go down.
“But she fully stood behind me when I told her it really was what I wanted to do,” she said.
One woman who runs a body shop with her husband that Domar applied to prior to landing a job at Last Chance gave her some encouraging words.
“She told me to keep going at it and don’t give up, even if it’s hard,” said Domar. “She said I will be turned down by some shops but don’t get upset because some people have their own way of mind, and sometimes a female in the industry is not their way of mind.”
Domar admits that when she first set out to find a job, the reaction she got when she walked into shops was startling.
“I’d go in to apply for a job, and they’d ask if I was looking for one for my brother or my boyfriend,” she recalls.
Some auto body industry veterans may view the future employment picture as bleak, but Domar doesn’t quite see it that way. The classes she took at Waubonsee were filled to capacity. In fact, she remembers she had to jump on her computer at 8 a.m. sharp to register for classes, otherwise she might have lost out.
As for shops preferring to hire experienced techs over newbies, she feels that might be a mistake.
“If shops hired new grads, they might be better off because we’re already trained on all the new technology,” she said. “That would save the shop from having to spend money on training.”
Case in point: Waubonsee was one of the first tech schools in Illinois to switch to waterborne/low-VOC paints, so students will already be adapted to it once they hit the real world.
Domar’s ultimate goal is to own her own restoration shop someday.
Oddly enough, repairing collision-damaged vehicles isn’t Jessica Anderson’s No. 1 passion – it’s helping people. But returning people’s cars to pre-accident condition essentially is helping people, so she has found the best of both worlds and couldn’t be happier.
When she was attending Wiregrass Georgia Technical College, she conveyed to her teacher her intense desire to help people. Together, they launched a program called RIDE (Regular Individual Driving Education) whereby some of the vehicles donated to the school would be repaired and offered as a scholarship to students who maintain a 3.0 GPA throughout the program and ultimately graduate. They gave their first car away last May, and the event made the local news.
“I like to get dirty, and I like to make things right. That’s why I work with the RIDE program – you help make cars right and can help make lives right,” Anderson said.
Anderson continues to help people even after graduation now that she’s a painter’s helper at Valdosta Toyota-Scion in Valdosta, Ga. She started out there as an intern.
“My boss was really excited when I came in for an internship,” she said. “He had always wanted a new tech fresh out of school who he could groom into the kind of employee he wanted.”
Anderson has always loved cars. She grew up around them and raced go-karts, so after enrolling at a four-year university and realizing that wasn’t the route she wanted to take, she signed up for collision repair at Wiregrass and “fell in love” with it.
Clearly, Anderson was good at it, too. Like Krueger and Domar, her first-place finish at her state SkillsUSA competition in collision repair earned her a trip to the national contest.
“I appreciated the opportunity to work with great people,” says Anderson. “It was an honor to win the gold at state. Competing at the nationals was mind-blowing.”
As for being a female in a male-dominated industry, the road has been rough at times for Anderson. At school, she endured sexist remarks from one classmate, but the teacher handled the situation and, in fact, kicked the student out because it wasn’t his first time harassing fellow classmates. Her career choice was accepted among her friends, who weren’t surprised that she wanted to work with cars.
“Anyone who really knew me didn’t think it was weird,” she said. “I’ve always been one of the guys, and so for me to work on cars, it was kind of, ‘Whatever.’”
Anderson finds metal finishing the most interesting aspect of collision repair.
“You have to know how metal works and understand the memory in it and how not to overstretch it and, if you do, what to do to correct it,” she said. “Putting a crushed piece of metal back the way it was is definitely an art form.”
Unlike Krueger and Domar, Anderson really doesn’t have her sights set on owning her own shop someday. She knows that, with all the hassles, it’s easier said than done. But she would like to advance her skills and someday earn the title of Master Technician.
Though Anderson is passionate about collision repair, she prefers to save her free time for family.
“I try not to work on hobby cars in my off time,” she says. “Whenever I’m not working, I try to spend time with my family. I’ve had plenty of offers for side jobs, but I’d rather spend time with my family and make money at my regular job.”
Moving forward, Anderson will heed the encouraging words she has heard from other women in the profession.
“They tell me to keep my head up and don’t let the guys get me down just because I’m a woman. Women have more attention to detail than men, so we’re probably better than them in the industry and they’re just scared of us."