Elise Groenewold says she notices some people are quietly skeptical when she enters the body shop. That is until they see her sanding, welding and painting.
The artist-turned-auto body worker has been interested in cars since adolescence, but she didn’t really think about working on them until she was in college. Groenewold was earning her degree in fine arts, and she realized she was shifting gears when her artwork transitioned from still life drawings of flowers to sketches of cars and trucks.
Groenewold’s interest turned into a passion, and she went on to complete a degree in collision repair. Her hobby quickly developed into a rewarding, hands-on career at 3M, where she develops training for customers and 3M sales representatives. While attending school, she competed successfully in SkillsUSA in 2014 and won a medal at nationals. She was the first woman to ever place in the top three in the Collision Repair competition.
Building Skills for Work
SkillsUSA is an organization that supports building a skilled workforce with a focus on trade, technical and skilled service occupations. The members – currently about 350,000 strong – include students, teachers and industry representatives. Each year, they host the SkillsUSA Championships, in which more than 6,000 of the country’s best students compete in about 100 categories from carpentry to culinary arts, and the top students in the nation are recognized.
When Groenewold vied for a title in the 2014 competition for collision repair, she showed off her skills in metal straightening, welding, plastic repair and structural analysis. Groenewold still is involved as a judge at the state competition. She now returns every year to judge the plastic repair portion of the skills contest.
Her advice for future participants? “Plan your time wisely,” she says. “You should never be standing there waiting for your adhesive to dry.”
A Rewarding Career
Groenewold says the transition from art to working on cars was natural.
“The idea of using a car as my canvas really drove me to get into auto body,” she says. While much of the work is collision repair rather than the more creative custom jobs, she realized she was good at it. She also didn’t mind getting her hands dirty and found the work rewarding.
“It’s instant gratification,” she says. “You see the end product, and you have a satisfied customer.”
She encourages high school students – both boys and girls – to really think about studying the trades. She knows some women may face discrimination in the auto body industry, but she herself isn’t too worried about it.
“I expected some adversity, but I’ve focused more on building my skills,” she says. “I’ve always had an upbeat and humble attitude. I never expected accommodations, but I wasn’t afraid to ask for help either.”
As a high school honors student, she didn’t receive any encouragement to pursue vocational training. She says everyone talked to her about pursuing a four-year degree, but she has no regrets.
“This is a life skill,” she says. “When you learn how to work with tools and use your hands, you learn how to be brave and build the confidence needed to tackle things yourself. This translates into all kinds of work, at home and in other occupations.”
And she’s continuing to build her training and skills. She has recently completed a bachelor’s degree in organizational studies, so she can continue to build on her role at 3M.
“Find work that energizes you,” she says, “and go for that.”