I-CAR Role Model Shows a Woman’s Place in Collision Repair Can Be Wherever She Aspires to Be

03/07/2024 by I-CAR

One woman's trash is another woman's treasure and sometimes even a priceless discovery. Even though she didn't know it, 12-year-old Melissa “Mel” Callejas needed a challenge to take her fledging interest in auto mechanics and cars to the next level. And, there it was, waiting for the next garbage pick-up, a busted-up dirt bike that Callejas instinctively knew had a potential. Could she fix it? Turns out she could, and she got it running through trial and error and some advice from her dad who knew a little about motors. “I put it all back together and got it to run. I felt like a doctor who brought a person back to life. It was awesome.”

Mel with welding helmet

“I've always loved cars. It's a passion,” Callejas says. She was hooked before she ever had a chance to form an impression of automotive work as “man's work.” At a very early age, she was already developing an interest in cars and a hands-on style fueled by her curiosity of how things work. Mattel Hot Wheels® were a favorite childhood toy, and during her school years, her interest grew as she began exploring how engines work and the sport of drag racing. Though her automotive skills sometimes intimidated her dates, the teenaged Callejas never anguished over pursuing an interest few females shared. By the time, she was 18, she held Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification. She began her career as a transmission mechanic but had bigger ambitions that led her to collision repair.

Lots of Career Options

“There are a lot of options in collision repair, and with the trend towards specialization, you can find a niche where you best fit in,” says Callejas, who has worked in a variety of roles at a body shop, including management.She notes that women are more becoming more open to collision repair careers, although they aren't showing up in her I-CAR welding classes. To date, she's taught just one female welding student; not surprising since women generally are not in structural technician roles, which require welding skills and knowledge of metallurgy. “You have to understand metal to know how to cut it, how it hardens, and what you can and can't weld.” Callejas first learned welding to fabricate parts and modify cars for drag racing, still a side interest.

Callejas emphasizes that women without much technical background should not be scared off from a collision repair career. “If you like it, you will be able to learn it,” she says. And chances are good you'll like collision repair if the thought of “repairing a car so that it leaves the shop looking like it never got into an accident” appeals to you as satisfying work. “Collision repair is an art, and it's really cool work,” Callejas says.

Callejas believes women tend to have certain advantages over men in some collision repair jobs. “We understand the importance of details. We take care of our families and our homes. The kids leave for school with their lunches and everything they need in their backpack. Women are good at paying attention to details. They can be more patient and organized….like making sure every last bolt gets replaced during reassembly of car parts.”

Mel inspecting a weld

As I-CAR Senior Marketing Director, Talent Programming, Arianna Sherlock recognizes Mel as an outstanding role model. “Mel exemplifies the qualities essential for success in the automotive industry, making her an ideal source of inspiration for future professionals. When I think of the kind of people, I'd want aspiring technicians to be inspired by, I think of Mel. She's the total package: talented, skilled, dedicated to training and committed to giving back. Her passion precedes her and as a bilingual female, she has the ability to reach the next generation of technicians in a way we haven't before,” said Sherlock.

The reason Callejas switched from mechanical work to collision repair early in her career was to pursue estimating work. Her qualifications were challenged where she least expected it, namely female customers. “I found older women wanted a man to write their estimate, especially if they had a high-end car.”

Callejas dug in with her “I'm going to show you” attitude and went above and beyond to make all her customers comfortable and confident in her abilities. She also adjusted her career plan. She decided to know estimating inside out, she would need to get hands-on and perform the labor she was writing up for estimates. She sought every opportunity to broaden her skill set during the 10 years she worked in collision repair. She performed body work, refinishing, framework, welding, and eventually managed all four locations operated by her employer. “Once I understood how repairs were done and how long they took, I went back to estimating.”

A One-of-a-Kind Vehicle Built by Our One-of-a-Kind Instructor

With the motor of a Corvette and the transmission of a Camaro, this one-of-a kind, hybrid Cadillac-Ford embodies the vision its creator, I-CAR instructor Mel Callejas, had for an idealshow and race car. The best she could build within her budget, anyway! It's a big step up from her modified 1986 Monte Carlo, but not quite the Cadi CTS-V she wished she could have afforded. Still, she is a strong competitor in car shows and quarter-mile drag races with her creation she's affectionately dubbed the “CTS Mel-V.” She says, “I love to race what I build. I build motors for other guys but don't want anyone building for me.

To build the “CTS Mel-V,” Callejas:

  • Started with a 2005 Cadillac CTS V6 automatic, replacing rear section with one from a Ford 8.8, “which is the differential. These are indestructible” according to Callejas.
  • Converted to a Corvette LS6 V8 motor and Camaro T56 6-speed transmission
  • Redid all the suspension and changed from five to eight lugs on the wheels
  • Changed the cooling and fuel systems to support an eventual addition of a supercharger that she is saving for
  • Installed all headliner suede and in middle of seats, installed suede with painted orange accents to coordinate with car exterior
  • Refinished with Chevy atomic orange blended with some purple pearl (a favorite of Callejas')
  • Upgraded the stereo system, including adding three 12-inch dual-voice coil subspeakers from the trunk kicker and running the speaker system on its own battery “so it won't draw from the car and slow me down.”

Joining the Ranks of I-CAR Elite

Callejas' strategy to round out her knowledge to become a top estimator also paid off by qualifying her for a new opportunity. When she heard I-CAR needed welding instructors in Florida in 2021, she eagerly signed on, ready for the next challenge. After working so hard on her own skill development, she feels “to be an instructor and show others what I learned is so rewarding,” she says. “When I was recruited, and this always sticks with me, I was told that I-CAR instructors are the elite. It is a big deal to me to have the title I-CAR instructor. Teaching the industry the right way to make a safe repair is a huge responsibility, and it's on us.”

To support correct welding techniques, in 2019 with the launch of the enhanced Professional Development Program (PDP) I-CAR changed the renewal interval for welding certification from five to three years. “Welding equipment and techniques are evolving to keep pace with technical advancements in vehicles like lighter-weight materials and Advanced Driving Assistance Systems,” says Callejas. “What kinds of repairs vehicle makers allow and how to safely make repairs are impacted by these advances.”

Callejas recalls that when she was learning, “we were told how to do things but not why. You'd be told to turn this knob to the left, but we didn't know why. Students today want to know why. As an I-CAR instructor, I explain the 'why' of what I'm teaching.”

Knowing the “why” also helps Callejas maintain her credibility with the mostly male industry students she teaches. When first-time students are doubtful of Callejas' expertise, it is short-lived. “They quickly see that I know what I'm talking about.”

The “why” behind Callejas' recognition in 2022 with an I-CAR welding instructor award is her commitment to ensuring every student leaves her classes knowing something new and relevant to their job. Before each class, she looks at the experience level of her technician students. She boosts the confidence of those who struggle. “They beat themselves up mentally.” Often, these newly-certified or re-certified techs will feel pride about their work and what they learned. They'll often take photos of themselves with Callejas and the welds they completed.

On the other hand, when there are very seasoned pros in the group, “I ask myself what can I tell them? It can even be something small that will make the class worthwhile for them.” This is where teaching “the why” comes in. She recounts a recent class where she explained the application method for an adhesive. “I explained the application had to be done a certain way because there are glass beads in the glue and they can't be broken.” These experienced pros were surprised to learn they had been applying the glue incorrectly.

Mel instructing a student

Rachel Castle, Manager of Delivery Enablement for Mel's region, highlights Mel's talent as a technician and her exceptional ability to connect with others in the field. "Mel is not only an outstanding individual but also an exceptional instructor," Castle remarks. "Her innate capacity to effortlessly engage with students fosters a conducive learning environment where everyone flourishes. Consequently, students acquire the knowledge and skills essential for executing thorough, secure, and high-quality repairs. Working with Mel is a pleasure, and we consider ourselves fortunate to have her as an invaluable member of our Southeast Team."

One time when being a female welding instructor is an advantage is when Callejas works with technical school students. “I tell them if I can do it (welding) in a man's world, you can do it too; and I talk to the girls the same way I talk to the boys.” Callejas enjoys how unself-conscious young learners are. “They don't worry about their weakness (in knowledge). They want to better themselves. They ask, 'Why do you want me to do it this way?' That's great, because if they understand, they don't try to cut corners.”

Not everyone is as lucky as Callejas to discover so early what they want to do what their life. Callejas enjoys promoting the industry to help others discover the rewards of welding and collision repair careers, which is why she's been judging SkillsUSA student competitions. “I've judged welding, painting, whatever they need me for. I'm always down for whatever.” She was honored to be chosen to present hands-on welding demos for dozens of 2023 SEMA attendees who stopped at I-CAR's booth. With the shield on her helmet hiding her face and her hands encased in heavy-duty welding gloves, passersby may not have guessed this was a woman at work. Though being a female collision repair professional may require you “to give 110% to prove yourself,” Callejas says it's been worth it when you're doing a job you love.