Changing careers

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer July 14, 2011 07:36 pm

CANDICE CHURCHILL works on a bumper from a late-1970s Ford during one of her auto body classes at Walla Walla Community College. The former Boise Cascade production supervisor earned her auto body repair degree this June, graduating with honors.
CANDICE CHURCHILL works on a bumper from a late-1970s Ford during one of her auto body classes at Walla Walla Community College. The former Boise Cascade production supervisor earned her auto body repair degree this June, graduating with honors.

Helped by program for displaced workers, former Boise Cascade employee graduates with honors from Walla Walla Community College’s auto body repair program
 

 

When the recession knocked 35-year-old Candice Churchill out of a management-level job at Boise Cascade, she knew the time had come to learn some new skills.

Whatever her next career turned out to be, it had to offer her steady work and good wages. Some job traditionally held down by a man didn’t seem like a bad idea. In her own experience, Churchill, of La Grande, had learned those kind of jobs make for a good life.

Besides working as a production supervisor at Boise Cascade’s La Grande sawmill, she’d also worked at the Fleetwood and Intermountain RV recreational vehicle plants.

At Fleetwood, she worked in “just about every department except chassis.” At Intermountain RV, she started out as a laborer and worked her way up to a line supervisor position.

She climbed a ladder at Boise Cascade as well, progressing from forklift driver to planer operator, and finally to the production supervisor job.

She held that position two years, until Boise closed the mill due to poor market conditions and labor costs. The parting was sad, she said.

“I really enjoyed it. The business end of what Boise Cascade does is very articulated, and you’ve got to be at the top of your game,” she said.

After the closure, Churchill studied options, and then made a move. Aided by a program for displaced workers offered by the Training and Employment Consortium, she enrolled in Walla Walla Community College’s auto body repair program.

“There were a lot of things I could have done, but we researched it and that was what kept coming up. I thought about auto mechanics, but that’s pretty crowded right now,” she said.

She was the auto body program’s only woman when she started at WWCC in September 2009, and its only woman when she graduated this June.

In the end, she found she fit right in.

“I was the only female, but I’m kind of used to that. I think historically I’ve always chosen professions that pay well and are male dominated,” she said.

She said that in her two years in the program, one other female signed up, but didn’t last.

“She showed up two days, then never came back,” Churchill said. “But it’s understandable. It’s a little intimidating to walk into a room full of men like that, especially if you’re not used to it.”

She said work at the RV plants and lumber mill taught her what to expect when it comes to working in male-dominated environments. The key, she said, is for a woman to send the message that she takes things seriously.

“I’ve devoted a lifetime to working in male-dominated fields and there are some things about it that are a pain in the butt,” she said. “I ignore those things, and over a short period of time they figure out I’m there to work. I end up making a lot of friends.”

Gaining peer acceptance actually turned out to be only a small part of a big challenge. Earning her degree at a school more than 50 miles from home took grit and determination.

Five days a week, she commuted from La Grande to Walla Walla — and back — in a little Honda car with a four-cylinder engine. The car held up and got good gas mileage, but the driving was a strain.

“I commuted every day. I’ve got an intimate knowledge of Interstate 84 and the Tollgate Highway. The winters really stunk,” Churchill said.

On campus, instruction was intensive and the workload heavy. In the shop, Churchill learned electrical and mechanical systems, body and fender work, welding, panel replacement, corrosion and corrosion protection, plastic repairs, refinishing and painting.

She said the auto body shop was well equipped and staffed by teachers who were good at assessing skills. The teachers started students off on projects they were sure to handle.

“My weakest point was welding, so obviously they didn’t start me out on that,” she said. “My first project was replacing the front end of a Ford Taurus. It was pretty intense, which I really enjoyed.”

Auto body shop was only half the challenge of her degree program. Churchill also had to take courses in math, writing, oral communication, job psychology and more.

She persevered through it all, and in fact excelled. She turned in a 4.0 academic average every quarter, and won three scholarships.

She also became an active participant in SkillsUSA, a nationwide leadership program. As a member of the WWCC chapter, she took part in competitions and won awards at the national level.

Churchill was one of two students chosen to speak at commencement ceremonies in June. During that event, she talked about diversity on campus and in the workplace.

She was pleased to report that times have changed.

“Although I was curious in the beginning how I would be received in the auto body program, I discovered that we now live in a world that doesn’t accent gender,” she told the crowd.

By now, graduation is but a pleasant memory. Churchill said she’s been taking it easy since the big day, recovering from her hectic two years in college.

Her job search will begin in earnest soon. She said she isn’t worried about the outcome.

“I’ve done a lot of networking and made connections. I’m feeling confident work will come my way soon,” she said.