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Some career paths seem as straight as a train track. An auto body collision expert might go from apprentice to shop owner, for instance, over the course of a decade. But for Georgia-based Selena Strickland, her entry into shop ownership wasn’t as simple as moving a single, speeding car ahead: She had to switch tracks altogether.

Like many technical college graduates who’ve specialized in collision repair, Strickland is building her business acumen and slowly building a customer base with the near-term aim of opening her own shop. However, there’s much that sets her apart from her fellow graduates.
Most notably, collision repair isn’t her first career. In fact, it wasn’t even something she considered doing until her late 30s. But once she was bitten by the painting and repair bug—more specifically, in her case, the VW Bug—she decided to pursue the new endeavor with gusto.

“I realized that life is short, and you have to do what makes you happy,” Strickland says. “This is a field where I have a great deal of satisfaction. Maybe I won’t ever make that much money at it, but really, I’m not trying to build an empire. I’m just doing what I love, and that’s the most important thing.”

Switching Tracks

Before Strickland started making cars and trucks look sharp, she worked in epidemiology after graduating from Emory University with a master’s degree in public health. While working as a district epidemiologist for the state, her husband’s aunt developed Alzheimer’s, and Strickland quit her job to be her full-time caregiver.

After a year of such emotionally taxing work, she began to think about a project she’d done a few years earlier, when her 1974 Volkswagen Beetle needed some body work. In an effort to make the repairs affordable, Strickland decided to do the work herself, although she’d never had a class in painting or minor repair.

“As a woman in this industry, you have to prove yourself. You never get the feeling that you’re going to be one of the guys.”

Strickland’s father had been a carpenter, and his work ethic and his belief that anyone can learn what they need to do if they study, had stuck with his daughter. Instead of calling around to repair shops, she hit the library instead. After some research, she built a cheap painting booth in an old shed, and tackled the job on her own, even redoing the interior in the process.

“It looked pretty good,” she recalls. Then, laughing, she says, “It looked even better from 10 feet away, and really great the farther back you went.”

By the time Strickland began caring for her husband’s aunt in 2002, the Beetle project was a few years behind her. But she hadn’t forgotten the satisfaction of working with her hands, and the attention to detail that was needed. “Every step is so important in collision repair, and that appeals to me,” she says. “I told myself that if I ever got the chance, I’d do it again because the whole process of taking something in bad shape, and bringing it back to where it was, that really struck a chord with me.”

Seeing firsthand the dramatic and devastating effects of Alzheimer’s only made Strickland think about collision repair more passionately. Life is too brief to be doing work that isn’t engaging, she realized, and so in 2004, she signed up for a class at Okefenokee Technical College. “At first, it was just to stay sane and get out of the house,” she says. “But the more classes I took, the more important they became.”

When her husband’s aunt passed away, Strickland was faced with a choice: Return to epidemiology, where she was assured of a good salary, or take a chance on a new career track. “If it hadn’t been for my husband being so supportive, I’m not sure what I would have done,” she says. “But he saw that I loved going to school every day, and we agreed that I wasn’t as fulfilled by epidemiology as I was by collision repair.”

Her talent has become as formidable as her drive: In 2007, she placed first in Georgia in the SkillsUSA competition. Just before the national contest, she ruptured her Achilles tendon and refused to go to the hospital until after the rigorous competition. Even with a wrapped-up ankle, she finished in 10th place.

The Female Factor

Because of Strickland’s stellar performance at the Skills competition, she earned the attention of the Women’s Industry Network (WIN), which awarded her its first educational scholarship to attend NACE in 2007. A new organization, WIN aims to provide a network for women in the collision repair field, and to honor women who have demonstrated passion and skill in the industry.

Strickland knows that being a woman in a male-dominated industry can be challenging. Even though she hasn’t yet opened her shop, she’s already had to fight old misconceptions about women and auto body work: that they don’t do as good a job as men, that they don’t belong, and that they’re just pursuing the profession as a hobby.

These types of perceptions plagued her throughout her training, she notes. But with her signature positive outlook, she sees those kinds of attitudes as a benefit, simply fueling her drive to be and do her best.

“When I first started school, people were more likely to dismiss me because I’m female,” she says. “They would say things like, ‘She’s not really going to work,’ or they’d look at my work more closely than everyone else’s to find the flaws.” Strickland realized that to gain their respect, and to keep her own self-respect, she couldn’t slack for a single moment.

The situation sometimes led to frustration, she admits. “As a woman in this industry, you always have to prove yourself. You never get the feeling that you’re going to be one of the guys.” But, true to form, she laughs: “Well, not that I’d be standing around telling dirty jokes like they do.”

Rather than fight against her classmates or develop a standoffish attitude, Strickland offered help whenever she could, even if it meant taking time away from her own projects. That type of willingness to assist others made an impression on her classmates, and helped her earn respect, she says. “People were more willing to work with me, because they started seeing me as being on the same level,” she recalls. “Once you earn someone’s respect, then you can work toward friendship, and that’s what happened. I made some good contacts in my classes, and some great friends.”

She also found a mentor in instructor and advisor Jack Dixon, who welcomed her from the start. He recognized that she was a nontraditional student—not only being a woman, but also holding a master’s degree and nearing 40 years old. He helped her navigate the difficulties, while encouraging her to hone her skills, Strickland says.

Dixon nominated her for a Georgia Occupational Award of Leadership (GOAL), which she won in 2007. In accepting the award, Strickland noted that technical education had given her a well-defined career goal, entrepreneurial goals, self-confidence, and a good work ethic.

 

Business Minded

With her technical skills in place, Stric-kland decided to also take some entrepreneurial classes to brush up on business basics. Her husband, recently retired from an IT position in the public health field, will help with accounting and bookkeeping, and Strickland notes that he may pitch in later to do tasks like priming.

The couple is now at work on building a new 15- by 30-foot paint booth, and Strickland says she’ll mainly focus on painting and minor collision repair. There isn’t much competition in the area—living in rural Georgia, the nearest body shop is about 25 miles away.

And she already has a waiting list, since many high schoolers are keen to have their pickup trucks painted to look distinctive, and the area’s large deer population is continually a challenge for drivers who don’t veer out of the way quickly enough to avoid damage. Increasingly, older neighbors are buying the types of cars they had as teenagers and wanting to fix them up, so they can yet again cruise around in a ’50s-era Chevy.

Except for some deer-related damage, most jobs don’t involve insurance companies, so Strickland isn’t involved in the DRP debate. Instead, she simply draws customers who have heard about her work, or are part of the area’s tight-knit community. So far, she’s done some restorations and quite a few paint jobs for teenage customers. She anticipates that even if her husband does a few painting-related tasks, she’ll do the bulk of the work solo. And that’s just the way she likes it.

“I really enjoy working by myself, seeing a project from start to finish,” she says. One of the reasons that she opted to start her own shop was that she didn’t want to deal with the type of misconceptions she saw during her training if she were to work in someone else’s shop, but another big reason was that she simply likes doing things her own way, at her own pace.

“I feel like I’m providing a service in my area,” she says. “And I can work the way I want.” Gradually, she even sees being a woman as a benefit rather than a disadvantage. People are intrigued by seeing a female in the profession, she notes, and that piques their interest. Newspaper articles about her work, and her awards, have made more potential customers receptive to bringing in their cars and trucks, and she knows that once she does the best work that she can, they’ll remain loyal customers.

Much like in school, she has to prove herself with every job. Where some might see that as a daunting challenge, Strickland sees it as a way to stay sharp. So far, her two favorite projects have been a 1956 Volkswagen Beetle, which she painted in two-tone purple and white and put in extra mirrors, and a 1953 Chevy, a project made satisfying simply because “it’s a beautiful car.”

But her favorite project is the one that’s coming up next. During the past decade, she’s been looking for a 1967 VW Beetle, chosen because it’s from her birth year. After finishing school, she finally found one, and of course, it’s in need of some tender loving care, which she’s only too happy to provide. Speaking like a true, passion-infused collision repair professional, she says, “I can’t wait to work on it! It’s always been a dream of mine to fix up a ’67 Beetle, and now I finally have the chance. How many people get to live their dream like that?”

New Horizons

Strickland acknowledges that going into business on her own might be a risky endeavor, but she truly does feel like she’s living her dream in many ways. And she feels that with the creation of WIN, and with mentors like Dixon, other women could follow in her footsteps.

“WIN is a tremendous resource. They’ve been so supportive and encouraging, and everyone involved there offers any help they can,” she says, explaining that the organization has been adept at reaching out to newcomers like her, which gives it the potential to make the industry a more welcoming place for women professionals. Having a strong industry association could also spark more interest in collision repair among female technical college students.

For the women who are considering a move into the field, Strickland advises that they should find a mentor, get involved at a good technical school, and most importantly, get their hands dirty as often as they can.

“Rely on your ability, and know that you can learn skills just like anybody else,” she says. “It just takes getting out there and practicing. For women entering training in this field, I’d say, ‘Don’t be discouraged when your work is scrutinized 10 times more than anyone else’s. That just keeps you honest.’”

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