Auto Body Collision Technology major is super-focused on his chosen career path
Malakai Lillmars, 24, is earning his Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) in Auto Body Collision Technology (ABCT) at Dakota County Technical College and is on track to graduate from DCTC in May 2024.
Malakai works as a carpainter at Caliber Collision in Burnsville while going to college, which doesn’t leave much time for extracurricular activities, but he would like to start a car meet/car club at DCTC next semester.
“I work as many hours as possible at Caliber,” Malakai said. “I wake up at 5 a.m. every day to squeeze in as much time as I can at work before going to school, so my entire day is painting or body work. Between work and school, I have gained an insane amount of knowledge from when I started last fall. I have the most incredible teachers, mentors, coworkers—even my boss feels like one of my biggest supporters. They are extremely patient, kind, and forgiving with me, while being some of the most talented people I have ever met.”
Malakai added that his favorite part about painting is that nothing is the same. “I get to work on (and move around) some really cool cars I would have never otherwise gotten to interact with, and there are usually some interesting challenges you need to solve,” he said. “One thing they don’t tell you about being a carpainter is that half the time you’re fixing your own mistakes, but being able to do that without giving up or being disheartened is a powerful skill; there will be mistakes but you will have gained the power to fix and learn from them.”
Malakai has centered his long-range education plans after graduating from DCTC on completing as many certifications and programs as he can through Caliber, such as the Technician Apprentice Program and Sherwin-Williams Paint certifications. He plans on continuing whatever education he can receive well into his painting career.
“A long-term goal of mine is to work at or open my own custom shop/paint shop,” Malakai said. “I really enjoy welding and plastic welding so it would be cool to specialize in repairing and refinishing bumpers or doing small-collision work focused on repair versus replace. I think far too many repairable items are thrown away, especially when those items are non-replaceable like many of the parts on the cars that I am into; you can’t just buy an aftermarket bumper cover or a fender for a Saab 9-2x these days. I would also like to learn the process of making molds/3D printing to be able to offer these nonexistent parts to the car community.”
Faculty perspective: Jessica Mosbeck
I met Malakai with him being new to the auto body world and me just accepting the role as the new, first-year Auto Body instructor. My excitement to teach was reflected back at me from Malakai, who was ready and excited to learn. Malakai has a way of making everyone around him feel like he’s their biggest fan with me being no exception.
Malakai, I’ve wracked my brain trying to come up with something to explain to you just how lucky I am to have you as part of my very first group of students, but the only thing I keep coming up with is the simplest of phrases: “Thank you.”
Thank you for your excitement. Thank you for your work ethic. Thank you for your curiosity. And thank you for making my first experience as an instructor a good one.
Auto Body Collision Technology Faculty
Dakota County Technical College
LGBTQ+ Student Perspective: Malakai Lillmars
When I first started figuring out that I wanted to get into auto bodywork, there were some people in my life that raised some concerns. I am an extremely queer little fella that doesn’t quite suit the typical “muscular shop daddy” type that I saw in basically every collision environment that I walked into. (Note: I weigh about 105 pounds soaking wet, and you could probably crush me with a tire.)
On top of that, I’m a 24-year-old, nonbinary, gay guy that sometimes gets mistaken for a teenage tomboy. While I don’t identify as trans, I technically fall under that label, which was something that I really had to be careful with given the harassment that I could face. Many people in my life warned me that I could face some issues or discrimination from other guys given my appearance and openly queer personality. The truth is, this is something I’ve had to face forever; I was confident enough in my motivation to work that I knew one day I would be able to prove that being in the auto body industry goes far beyond masculinity.
While I didn’t fear what others thought of me, I was most concerned about how my physical strength would affect my abilities when first going into my Auto Body classes. My first teacher at DCTC, Scott Logan, helped me realize that I had been greatly underestimating myself for quite some time. He assured me that physical strength didn’t define me or my skills when working on cars, and before I knew it, other people in the class were asking me for help with things that I felt I would’ve had to ask for assistance previously; it only took a couple snapped bolts for me to learn that my strength was so much greater than I knew.
I soon was succeeding greatly in both my Auto Body class and generals, thus my confidence in myself grew further. I started seeking out solutions to greater challenges, and the greatest problem I now faced was the disconnect I felt from working a deadbeat retail job every day after school.
I would go from spending all day at school doing something I loved and was passionate about, to having to spend five to six more hours doing something I could barely stay awake for. I lost my passion for the fabric retail store that I once loved—and it was time for me to move on.
I started my journey looking for a collision career by driving around from shop to shop after school, from Rosemount to Savage, begging for a chance to prove my worth. Many guys gave me cards; some took my name and number; I got a couple applications, but nothing really stuck out to me.
The two shops I was the most interested in were either “full-staffed” or the hours didn’t work with my schedule. One day in class, a technician from Burnsville Caliber Collision came into the shop looking for those interested in work. I was so desperate to get into a shop, that I just about dislocated my shoulder throwing my hand up when he asked who was interested.
Kevin Rice, a DCTC alumni, is the reason that I have my job today, and I’m proud to say he is now my friend and coworker. I am so grateful that he was able to look past my physical appearance and see me for the motivated individual that I am. The incredible guy I got paired with to be my mentor, Mike, has basically been like a work-dad for me and has helped me tremendously in my abilities and has been there for me outside of work.
I feel like I could call on anyone at my work for help, regardless of the situation. I don’t feel as though anyone at my work judges me for the way I present myself and my identity has never been a question; I’m just the shop buddy and that’s all there is to it.
When I got hired at Caliber, I was working nearly full-time as a manager for JOANN Fabric. I wasn’t able to get enough hours to support myself just with Caliber, so I had to keep the job I had started to loathe at JOANN. For nearly three months, I would get up at 5 a.m., go to Caliber, then go to school for eight hours, and work at JOANN for five more hours, pushing myself for nearly 17 hours a day just to make rent.
This meant I was getting about four to five hours of sleep every night, barely eating, never seeing my fiancé, friends, or family, ultimately causing issues in my relationships and personal health. While my family is supportive of me, they are extremely low-income, and I feel as though I should be providing for them instead of asking for help.
Due to the guilt I feel from getting money from my family, I have been supporting myself through college. In December, my TRIO advisor, Xuong Tran, helped me realize that I was not going to survive if I kept chasing after success as hard as I had been, and that I needed to learn to find a balance. I took a huge risk and quit my job at JOANN, choosing to live off my savings for the following semester.
This proved to be a life-saving decision, as my quality of life, work, and relationships improved greatly. I started seeing numbers and ratings consistently going up for my Caliber location, and my mentor was consistently getting higher and higher numbers of hours being turned over.
I recently became confident enough to ask for a wage increase due to the successes of my store, and successfully got myself a pretty serious raise. All in all, I feel as though I am doing better than I ever have been, and I am looking forward to what the future holds instead of being depressed about my past life.
I’ve learned that I can truly do anything that I set my mind to, as I keep accomplishing goal after goal; I think anyone else could do the same if they pursue something they are truly passionate about. I urge anyone to not let their beliefs of what others may say or think about you, but to focus on your own goals and feed off your achievements. You don’t need to waste time chasing dreams when you have all the support and resources you need to make them a reality.
Auto Body Collision Technology Major
Dakota County Technical College
More about Malakai…
Originally from St. Paul, Minnesota, Malakai graduated from Creative Arts High School, Class of 2016. One of her closest friends, Reid, works in the shipping department at a marketing company.
“I am doing everything I can to get Reid into the automotive industry because that’s where his skillset really lies,” Malakai said.
Reid and Malakai are active in the furry community, and they make fursuits together. According to Wikipedia: “The furry fandom is a subculture interested in anthropomorphic animal characters. Examples of anthropomorphic attributes include exhibiting human intelligence and facial expressions, speaking, walking on two legs, and wearing clothes. The term ‘furry fandom’ is also used to refer to the community of people who gather on the internet and at furry conventions.”
Malakai and Reid furry gallery
Reid is the Dobermann-looking furry.
“Reid and I have two of our close friends as roommates,” Malakai said, “as well as my 40-gallon freshwater aquarium. I keep a lot of smaller community fish that live in groups, but my primary residents are white cloud minnows and Otocinclus [dwarf suckers]. My closest family includes my parents, my grandma, my two uncles, and my two brothers—yes, I am Malcolm in the Middle.”
In his free time, Malakai loves driving. “Most of the time, you can find me driving around aimlessly or at the nearest car meet,” he said. “Much of my life is focused around my cars, a 2001 Saab 9-5 (5SPD) and 2005 Saab 9-2x (4EAT)—they are basically my whole world and my motivation for everything I do.
“If I’m not driving Saabs, I’m drawing them. You can’t bring me anywhere that has a whiteboard because I will just draw a Saab on it. I partake in many other crafty activities, but sewing is also a huge part of my life. I make Fursuits, bandanas, car accessories…anything I have the motivation to create, I can make it a reality. Another very important hobby of mine is POI spinning, also known as glowsticking or fire spinning. It’s technically a form of juggling, but can also be considered a form of dance.”
Malakai resides in Savage, Minnesota.
Malakai life gallery
One word that best describes your experience at DCTC:
Malakai Lillmars • Q & A
Why did you choose to enroll in the DCTC Auto Body Collision Technology (ABCT) program?
My grandpa did auto bodywork out of his garage when I was growing up. He lived about a mile away, and I would walk/get driven to his house almost every day during the summer because he had an in-ground pool in his backyard. While I spent a ton of time there, I never spent a lot of quality time with him.
I didn’t get into cars until years after his passing, so I never had the chance to learn about the skills he had; I mostly just knew there were a lot of dangerous chemicals in the garage, so I wasn’t really allowed to go out there too much. Not learning his skills from him is something that still deeply saddens me to this day, but does not inhibit me from wanting to be able to do the same work.
As I got older and started getting into cars, I found myself drawn to vehicles that unfortunately suffer from lots of rust issues; living in Minnesota certainly didn’t help with that. Before I even had a license I bought my first car, a 2005 Saab 9-2x. While it donned the Saab name, it was truly just a rebadged Subaru Impreza—cars that suffer from rusting and rotting in critical places on the frames, bodies, and suspension parts.
“The most important, and memorable part of this story is when I looked at my car on the side of the road one last time right behind my beloved 9-2x was the sign for Dakota County Technical College. I stared at the sign for a good minute before getting back in my car, and before I could even get home I was looking up the programs they had to offer.”
Purchasing my 9-2x began the journey of looking into rust repair, and I had originally thought it was something I wouldn’t be able to do. I feared welding and didn’t have space to work on my car like that. I started slowly saving up to have my car repaired, which would be a costly repair process.
One very dark night, I was driving back home to St. Paul from my former workplace in Apple Valley in the 9-2x. I had gone through an especially challenging day dealing with people, so I decided to take County Road 42 to Highway 52; I took this way occasionally if I knew traffic wasn’t going to be bad on the nightmare that is the 52 bridge in downtown, and it was a bit of a longer drive which I enjoyed.
It was shortly after the intersection of 42 and Akron Avenue, when I struck one of three deer on my driver’s side that appeared out of nowhere right in front of DCTC. I immediately pulled over and calmed myself before assessing the damage, reassuring myself: “This is why you pay for comprehensive coverage.”
To my surprise, the deer were nowhere to be seen. I thoroughly looked over the Saab, and it had sustained no damage; just a skidmark that later buffed out. The most important, and memorable part of this story is when I looked at my car on the side of the road one last time right behind my beloved 9-2x was the sign for Dakota County Technical College. I stared at the sign for a good minute before getting back in my car, and before I could even get home I was looking up the programs they had to offer.
Once I learned that you could go to school for Auto Body, my life had completely changed. I thought it was a skill or a trade that you had to learn from someone in your life passing it down to you, so I had just about given up hope on that idea due to losing out on that possibility with my grandfather.
I took the incident as a sign from him to change my life around and start seeking out a career that would feed my passion for the rust buckets that I couldn’t live without, and soon I was signed up for the next semester at DCTC. My family couldn’t believe that I was going because I was always someone that refused to go to college, but something just “hit me.
What do you like best about the ABCT program?
If it wasn’t for the teachers at DCTC, I don’t think I would be so invested in the program. They have gone above and beyond to ensure that I am able to continue achieving my goals by supporting me in any way they can, often in unexpected ways. The knowledge and resources that have provided to me through field trips, in class, through career fairs—it’s all been extremely valuable. I am going to have a hard time leaving when I have completed my degree, because it already saddens me at the thought of not seeing these incredible people so often.
Three words that describe you as an auto body technician:
CRAZY. COLLISION. COLLIE.¹
¹ If you’ve ever seen a border collie doing its job herding sheep or cattle, that’s how I feel about my work. I am extremely motivated, focused, and you pretty much have to beg me to stop working. (Others have argued that I am intelligent, but I haven’t figured that one out yet…stubborn perhaps?)
What advice would you give students thinking about a career as an auto body technician?
Whatever you feel is going to hold you back, do everything you can to prove yourself wrong. The really cool thing about the auto body industry is that there are so many different kinds of work that you can do within it. You can be a body tech, you can be a painter, an estimator, work in the parts department, drive around as a representative for a company that supplies shops, do paintless dent repair—the list goes on and on.
The ABCT program is truly an introduction to many aspects of the industry, but know that you can really take any one skill you learn in the classes and become an expert at it. I urge you to take in as much information and resources as possible.
What are the most challenging aspects of doing auto bodywork?
I have found that having patience is one of the more challenging aspects of this field. I truly believe auto body work is an art form and like any new medium, you can’t learn it overnight; it’s a skill that takes time and practice.
Forgiving yourself for making mistakes can be challenging, especially when money is on the line. I accidentally wasted $50 of my own sealer the other day; it sucks but you just have to learn from it and move on. A lot of your time in beginner bodywork is going to be fixing your own mistakes, and it’s something I’ve had to learn to love, and love to learn from. My mentor even makes mistakes, we all do it, it happens.
How did you get the nickname “Crash” at Caliber Collision?
Oh, boy—to start this story, a few weeks into my time at Caliber, I was in the middle of a pileup collision with my 9-2x. I was mostly uninjured, and was able to have my car towed to my new shop, where it was unfortunately totaled out.
Luckily, I was able to purchase my car back from insurance for a fantastic price, so I am slowly rebuilding my poor baby at work and school. The turning point for the nickname Crash was an accident that I had at work. It must’ve been just a couple weeks after my accident that I had to move a customer’s van from one shop bay to another, which is an everyday occurrence, no big deal. This van had disability handicaps attached to the pedals and the steering wheel to allow for someone with limited mobility to drive easier.
While I was backing up the van, my shoe got stuck on one of the devices and caused me to accelerate backwards, right into a wall. (that van was set to be picked up just a few hours later.) I immediately told my boss, and he was very understanding; I think the only person upset with me was myself.
While it was slightly traumatizing going through that, most of my coworkers just laughed and talked about the times they had similar incidents with customer cars, quickly donning me with the nickname “Crash” given my recent incidents. It was the best-case scenario given that it was a grand caravan, parts were extremely easy to get, and we were able to fix the damage I caused the same day, allowing the van to go home the day after. Accidents happen, sometimes in the worst places, but you might just get a sweet nickname out of it.
What skills and know-how do you need to be a great auto body technician?
Once you’ve forgiven yourself for making the mistake, actually knowing how to fix them. Being able to fix things like clear coat drips, welding holes, bad paint jobs, you name it, is an extremely important skill to have in this industry.
You’re going to make a mistake, and you’re going to have to fix it in the least invasive way possible. Being able to ask for help when you don’t know something or if you need to move something heavy will also save you in the long run. Just be honest with yourself and the people around you.
What type of vehicles do you like doing body work on the most and why?
SAAAAAAABS! I love Saabs, but I think that was pretty clear already. I also love Subarus, Volkswagens, and Suzukis, mainly because those are the cars I have been around/grew up with, but also they are just visually appealing to me. I like working on all cars, though—I am working on something different every day at Caliber, and I really enjoy that for the moment.
What person has influenced your life the most and why?
Definitely my grandpa, Chuck. He passed away in 2011, but the influence he has on my life seems to be growing in its intensity as the years go by. I feel as though I need to continue his legacy of doing bodywork regardless of how I involve myself in the industry, and I hope I can continue to do well for him.
Where do you hope to find yourself in 20 years?
Somewhere in/around/near Duluth with my fiancé and our own custom shop with a 10-car garage and cabin would be cool 🤷🏻♂️; also like 20 Saabs, thanks
Malakai Lillmars • 12 Answers
- Favorite sport or physical activity: Skateboarding (even though I suck)
- Place you would most like to visit: Saab Museum in Trollhättan, Sweden
- Most exciting thing you’ve ever done: Helped throw an impromptu rave in a courtyard at a furry convention that got more attendance than the official dances
- Three things you would do if you won a $1 billion lottery: 1) Find who owns the right to Saab automobiles 2) Make a deal with whoever owns the right to Saab automobiles 3) Revive SAAB AB USA (quite possibly fail miserably, but at least own part of Saab now)
- Best book or movie you’ve read or seen lately: I spend too much time on car stuff, so I don’t watch/read a lot other than homework, but I will say that the Interpersonal Communications textbook 10/10 will change your relationships for the better
- Time period (past or future) you would explore if you could time travel: FUTURE the year 7017 for no reason at all
- One thing you most want to accomplish in your life: Put a Subaru engine in a Saab or a Saab engine in a Subaru just because it shouldn’t be possible, but we are gonna make it happen
- Your national bird if you were your own country: Gryphon
- Dream occupation: Any position working for the official Saab fighter jet division
- Person you would most like to meet: 06 SAAB my favorite rapper (Yes, he is real, I swear.)
- Skill you would most like to learn and master: Pinstriping and airbrushing on custom paint work
- Most important issue or problem facing humankind: Agreeing to disagree
Learn more about Auto Body Collision Technology at DCTC by contacting:
More about Auto Body Collision Technology at DCTC…
Auto body collision technicians are the skilled professionals who accurately diagnose and repair collision-damaged vehicles. Repairing today’s advanced passenger vehicles requires knowledge and training in metals, plastics, structural repairs, and refinishing. Instruction involves classroom theory, demonstrations, and hands-on repair of customer vehicles.
Skilled graduates find rewarding careers as body, frame or paint technicians, adjusters, appraisers, and managers in franchise or independent body shops, dealerships, specialty shops, and insurance companies.
Automotive Body Repairers
Restore and replace parts of automobile frames.
Seven-county Twin Cities metro
In Minnesota, there are 2,470 workers employed in this small career, which is in high demand compared to other careers. Growth rate is 5.3 percent in the U.S.
There will be a need for about 2,761 new Automotive Body Repairers to meet market demand between 2020–2030 This includes the demand due to replacement (workers leaving the occupation or retiring) as well as growth.
— Minnesota State CAREERwise Education (April 23, 2023)
Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA)
The Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA) was started to create a community on campus for anyone who identifies in the LGBTQQIAA+ community at Dakota County Technical College. SAGA provides support and promotes acceptance at DCTC. All persons are welcome to participate. SAGA’s mission is to bring all people of all identities together and create an environment of inclusion and friendship.
Learn more about gender neutral facilities and preferred name requests at DCTC by contacting:
Sexuality and Gender Alliance Club Faculty Advisor
Adjunct Mathematics Faculty