Long story short, my career started because I thought I was Michael Schumacher when I was 17 and crashed my Dad’s car, to which he responded, “well you may get used to learning how to fix it!”
Luckily for me, the car was sent for repair to Richard and Terry Henry at KRCR in Donaghadee, who listened to 17-year-old Rachel, arriving up at their workshop in her school uniform with a box of chocolates and asking if she could brush floors one day a week for work experience. It was at this point I’d left my dreams of being a forensic pathologist in the dust and wanted to be a mechanic! On my first day, I was given a suction-fed spray gun and sent into spraying a set of Massey Ferguson wheels and I guess I haven’t looked back since!
From there I went on to work for a small shop– only me and one other person; then onto work at Charles Hurst Accident Repair Centre where I divided my time between attending Riverpark Training where I managed to obtain both my Level 2 and Level 3 in Vehicle Refinishing in just 2 years!
During my time in Charles Hurst ARC and Riverpark, I was lucky to be entrusted with doing restoration work on 2 Land Rover Defender TD5s and the completion of refinishing a 250 GTO Ferrari MX-5 kit car.
I competed in both the UK SkillAuto heats and the Bodyshop Magazine Paint Apprentice of the Year competition at Thatcham and was delighted to be placed in the top 4 in the Thatcham competition.
In January 2019 I took a massive leap, well out of my comfort zone and became self-employed and it was here the “Paint by Rach” journey began. I gained a contract with Elite Refinish where I was entrusted with many jobs such as helping on a number of Jaguar race cars which was a great experience. Since then, I have gotten experience in industrial painting, and marine painting from working on board the Seven Sins superyacht in Italy, I’ve traveled to Slovenia and Monaco to speak at Global Summits and even been to Red Bull F1’s Headquarters to talk about mental health in the automotive industry.
Moving towards freelancing
Ultimately, it came down to the fact that I wanted to pick and choose what work I wanted to do. I wasn’t a massive fan of being told what to do and having managers make decisions on my behalf. I decided to go freelance as it gave me the freedom to try different things like painting in different industries and try other aspects in the automotive industry such as metal work and repair. Another benefit to being freelance is that you get to work with different painters all the time then you’re constantly learning new ways of doing the job and developing your own skills.
Every day is totally different for me, I tend to make a list at the start of the day with the foreman/body shop owner on what work they expect me to get through. Personally, I find ticking tasks off a list makes me more productive and helps me feel like I’m getting through the day a lot easier. In most contracts I stick to painting tasks however, I am always keen to get more experience in metal work and all aspects of the repair process.
I tend to get most of my opportunities from LinkedIn and Instagram. I’ve found that the industry isn’t overly well promoted across social media platforms; so, I took it upon myself to try to show all the incredible opportunities that can arise from being in the automotive industry.
Awards and recognitions
At the beginning of my career, I was very keen to get out and compete. I started by competing locally and getting 3rd in the Northern Ireland Apprentice Awards in 2017 and 2nd in 2018. I also competed at the Thatcham Apprentice Awards in 2017 and was named a runner-up at the Bodyshop Magazine Awards Night. From coming second, I was given the opportunity to compete at the National Qualifiers for WorldSkills at SkillAuto in 2018 however, by that stage I was out of age to qualify for team selection. In 2020 I was named as one of the 30 under 30 rising stars by Bodyshop Magazine along with winning Senior Paint Technician of the Year in 2021.
Auto refinishing market – Opportunities and challenges
I think the industry is super exciting and innovative at the minute, especially with all the new developments in electric vehicles. In terms of the refinishing market, the ever-improving UV technology coming through is exciting and the up and coming of more fast refinishing products due to the ever-increasing running costs is creating quicker and more efficient repair and refinishing processes. One of our biggest challenges is the global skills shortage not only in the automotive industry but in all industries, this is something that is massively important to me. I’ve been working with various companies and organisations to tackle this and to challenge the stereotypes of the industry that is making it so unattractive to the next generation.
Keeping abreast of evolving industry trends
Personally, I try to take on as much training as I physically can. However, being based in Northern Ireland, there aren’t many training opportunities as most are in the mainland UK which ends up being very expensive to partake in. I try to make as many connections with company representatives on LinkedIn to keep up-to-date with new technologies/products and I would be found watching YouTube videos of other painters/repairers to pick up tips and tricks from them.
Working in a predominantly male-centric automotive industry
I love working in the automotive industry, I find that I feel more comfortable and fit in well amongst the men in the trade. I’d love to see more women in the industry, I think the main problem holding them back from giving it a go is the reputation the trade traditionally has – as in being dirty and heavy when in reality, the job can be as dirty or as clean as you like. If you use the correct methods and PPE it’s a virtually dirt and dust-free job. For refinish, I’ve found any other woman I’ve worked with has had a better eye for detail typically than the men and tends to follow methods/instruction a bit better.
So far, I haven’t really met any other frelance refinishers, but in general, within the industry, I haven’t experienced a lot of gender discrimination. Anyone I’ve ever worked with has always just treated me the same as anyone else in the workshop. The few times I’ve felt discriminated against have been from the general public and customers, but never from another technician or foreman that I’ve worked with.
– As told to Mahesh Kallayil