Beauty is in the eye of the beholder—just ask anyone who’s ever beheld a fully restored Model T, or a tricked-out, metallic green 1933 Ford hot rod. They get it.
A talented auto body technician has the potential to make some serious cash. According to a recent Collision Repair Education Foundation Survey, the national, average annual income of an automotive collision technician was $53,857 in 2016. At the upper end, an experienced technician can make over $100,000 a year.
Make no mistake, auto body work takes artistic skills. Taking a wrecked vehicle and restoring its exterior to nearly brand-new condition requires an eye for detail. After all, this artwork has to be roadworthy—beautiful whether parked or flying aerodynamically down highway and byways without shaking apart.
Joseph Baker, Auto Collision instructor at Metropolitan Community College, has been teaching at MCC for 13 years and is also a graduate of the program. He started teaching night classes part-time while working in the field, and for the past three years has been working full time to create the next generation of auto body artists.
“My father was a diesel mechanic all his life and I grew up in the automotive industry. I enjoyed spending time with him wrenching in the driveway or helping friends work on their cars,” says Baker, who bought his first hot rod when he turned 15. “It was a rusty 1977 Camaro shell that was just rotting away in a neighbor’s driveway with a ‘for sale’ sign on its cracked windshield.”
Before he bought it, he had his dad take a look. “After about 30 seconds of inspection, my dad insisted that I shouldn’t buy the car due to the amount of rust and body work it needed. Later the next day, I drained my bank account and purchased the car. Dad wasn’t too happy when he got home.”
Baker and his dad towed the car uphill from their neighbor’s house with their truck rope. After removing a few parts that night, Baker discovered exactly how bad it was.
“We pulled the carpet up and found old house shingles caulked together holding the nonexistent floor in place,” he says. “From that point on, the 1977 Chevy Camaro sucked every penny and extra minute of my life into—what I would now call—an amateur restoration at the age of 15.”
It took Baker two years with limited funds to move that bombed-out Camaro from less than zero to a win, aided by his father and an uncle with his own garage. That hard-earned success left an indelible, but positive, imprint on the future instructor. Baker has gone on to make a difference in the lives of many students.
Kyle Ray is one of those students. At 24, Ray is the lead paint and body technician at CAL Automotive Creations. His job is rebuilding and restoring high-end street rods and show cars. Ray studied mechanical engineering and auto body at MCC, earning a career certificate as an entry-level auto collision technician as well as an Associate of Applied Science in auto collision technology.
“I am what they call a “first generation” body man because I didn’t get into it following my dad or grandpa or anyone else. I got into it purely out of my own interest and curiosity,” Ray said, adding that “a bit of necessity” was also a motivation.
“I started taking auto body classes at Metro to fix a car that needed body work. From there it grew into a passion and became the foundation for how I earn a living.”
Baker, Ray, and other technicians take pride in the fact that no two jobs are identical. Skill and creativity go together in a way the average person might overlook.
“Body work is more than just fixing dents in a fender,” Ray says. “It’s making the light lines flow and the gaps look seamless. It’s taking a rendering or a drawing and making it a reality. The art of restoration is its own world of shaping and coercing the sheet metal into exactly the right shape, and making cars look cleaner and crisper than they would have ever come from the factory.”
The MCC Auto Collision Program has become one of the top 17 collision schools in the United States over the past three years, according to Baker. The program holds an ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) and I-CAR (Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair) accreditation. Students gain I-CAR certifications while attending classes, making them more employable not only after graduation, but often while still in college or high school through MCC’S Career Academy program.
“It takes a serious skill set and a sharp eye to get it right, as well as a lifetime of learning and experience to perfect,” Ray says. “And the pay potential is insane. I have classmates starting at $60-$70k with little to no student debt.”
In winter 2020, MCC will cut the ribbon on a brand-new 100,000 square foot facility at its South Omaha campus to house its automotive and auto collision programs. The massive, two-story building will have classrooms, labs, and the latest in modern automotive technology to help keep Metro students in high demand.
For more information on MCC’s autobody programs visit mccneb.edu/Auto-Collision-Technology.
This article was printed in the October 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.