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Hiring: Need Auto Body Technicians to Fill Jobs?

There’s a battle raging in our industry to hire and keep technicians. What is the solution so that every shop has the people they need to operate efficiently and profitably? Part 1 of a 2-part series.

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Mitch Becker has been a collision industry trainer for 30 years and an I-CAR instructor for more than 25 years. Contact him at (763) 585-6411 or [email protected]

There’s a battle going on in the auto body industry. Hiring and keeping technicians has become a considerable part of any shop’s business. The amount of work for shops is not going down, but the number of techs available to do the work is a big concern. Many are trying to find a fix for their shop or considering what to do for the future. The question is, what is the fix for the industry?

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The number of new technicians coming into the auto body repair industry is significantly down. If this trend continues, the repair industry could face daunting challenges. According to one technical college’s flyer, over 50 percent of auto body technicians today are over 50 years old. As they prepare to retire, technicians are needed on an ongoing basis.

Opinion vs. Fact

There are lots of opinions and facts on why fewer young people are entering the industry. You undoubtedly will either agree or disagree with me. I want to say up front that there are many reasons why this is happening. I just want to point out some of the reasons in this article. In part two, I’ll discuss what some companies are doing about it. I’m not here to establish blame, I just want to encourage shops to try new tactics to draw in new people.

The Basics

Let’s look at what a shop needs. In most cases, we all want a good, experienced technician. Great, we all want that, but that’s not what we have a ready supply of. So our other choices are greenfield people or tech school grads. A greenfield person is a person with little to no experience. A tech school grad is a tech right out of school. Both are lacking the experience desired by shops, and both will need a lot of teaching and coaching. So what does a shop need in a technician? The following attributes are not necessarily complete or listed in any order of importance:

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  • Experience in many makes and models
  • Ability to read and follow guidelines
  • Training
  • A sense of urgency or ability to manage time to be efficient
  • Ability to adapt to new vehicles and procedures
  • Work ethic
  • Skills in metal refinishing and welding
  • Tools of the trade

As you look at this list, what could you add? Also, think about what’s most important to you. Where is your starting point? What are you willing to work with?

These are incredibly important questions to ask yourself. The reason is that experience is the hardest trait to find among technicians currently. You may need to think about what you can work with and grow.

Now before all the technical schools get defensive, I want to say that the tech school programs do a great job. The teaching of all the skills needed for a person to be a body tech are there. Those students who want to succeed will. But experience is still a factor to shops. This can only come from time in the field, when the technician learns not only how to repair vehicles but to be successful and make money – for both themselves and the shop.

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Hard Truths

Here are two truths we must look at. The first has three parts:

  • A tech only makes money when they’re working on a vehicle
  • A shop only makes money when a tech is working on a vehicle
  • Cycle time improves when the tech is working on a vehicle

The second truth is: It is not the fastest tech who makes money, it is the most organized.

Experience is what makes these truths true. It’s not just the vehicle repair, it’s the organization of work and sense of urgency to complete the work. It’s being on time and getting the job done correctly. It’s work ethic. Experience helps build this, but it comes from within. There are no classes that teach Work Ethic 101, but you can learn or develop it over time through experience.

Tech School Challenges

With the younger workforce’s attitude today, we see a lot of challenges. Their lives have been about technology and communicating electronically. Computers and phones are more complex, as is the way we communicate through Twitter and Snapchat. Because technology is always in the schools and is a focus of staff and counselors, the trades suffer.

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Many counselors don’t know what the auto trades have to offer. Outsiders have the preconceived notion that it’s a dirty job. Collision and mechanical programs suffer since counselors don’t introduce students to industries and careers they know nothing about. Add to that young people’s attitudes. The old-fashioned values are not a part of their lives. The value of money and teamwork is less defined. It has become the land of entitlement versus the land of opportunity.

My father always instilled in me that you will get out of it what you put into it. The competition for youth in the workplace is tough, and that has led to decreased enrollment in the auto trades. The auto body repair industry isn’t the only industry affected. The auto mechanical and welding industry are in short supply, too, as are others.

Another aspect is these programs’ tcost to schools. The repair industry is changing so fast that it makes it challenging for the schools to keep up. It’s a tough enough business environment for a shop with experienced techs, let alone students just learning the industry. It’s expensive for schools to draw students and keep up the shop/classroom. High schools dropping programs due to lack of interest and the cost puts more strain on the industry.

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All of these factors, including a workforce complaining about pay changes over the years, have put the industry in the situation it is today. When I ask technicians if they’ve ever promoted the industry to anyone and tried to recruit them, most say no. There are a few who have done that and want to mentor new people, but most do not. They feel bitter about working harder for less money. This hurts our industry when it comes to encouraging new people.

Options

If you need a technician, you have options. One option is to hire an experienced technician. This would mean to advertise, seek and hire someone from another shop or competitor. This would also mean you have something better to offer than their current employer. More money, more work, better equipment, benefits. All these enticements are great. Seems simple, but we all know it’s not.

You can advertise, but how many will apply? If your shop has the best of everything and a lock on most of the work in town, it may be easier. But remember, your competition is getting better too. You may feel you’re the best, but the tide can change with one tech. All it takes is one to damage your reputation.

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Also, the number of techs is decreasing. You may find yourself competing to hire new techs. You may have to promise a lot more than you bargained for. This could lead to some unhappy current techs, which becomes like quicksand.

There are lots of new ways shops are trying to hire your techs. The new wave of sign-on bonuses and cash incentives have all of sudden started moving techs from shop to shop. You may feel a tech is loyal to your shop, but in reality, how happy are they? When is the last time you asked? For many techs, money isn’t everything. Respect is a big part of building loyalty. They also want to be recognized for a good job. When you start looking to either add or replace someone, ask your employees, what do you like about working here? Be prepared, because you may not like what you hear. If there’s a lot of positive, then sell that.

Once you hire a tech for your shop, keeping them becomes a major task. A shop must provide work, an environment that’s conducive to work, the right equipment, a good place to work. Remember, there are other shops that want to hire your techs.

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The Problem

We all want experienced technicians, but the number of experienced technicians is going down. The average age is going up, and few new people are coming into the industry. Those new people who do come into our industry need experience. Where do they get that experience? Who’s willing to take the time and expense to give them all they need? Many shops don’t want to invest the time and money in those employees, fearing they’ll go someplace else later on.

The shortage of techs will not fix itself. Hiring from your competitors only offers a temporary fix. How do we get new people and get them experience? How do we teach that there’s not a job here but a career?

Summary

The auto repair industry has tremendous career opportunities, great job security and a need for quality people. How do we change people’s perception of the auto repair industry and draw new blood? We know we’re losing people and struggling to find replacements. In part two of this series, we’ll take a look things some shops have done to change the tide.

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