According to many collision repair professionals, there’s no tech shortage. Rather, the problem lies with the shops that haven’t been able to keep up with the changing demands of a new workforce with a new attitude about work. Today’s employee market is packed with people searching for the "right" place to work. They want employers who know how to motivate, train and reward. To accomplish this, they’ll job hop from one place to another, depending on who offers the best salary, benefits or whatever else they feel they need, want and deserve.
With the unemployment rate at just slightly above 4 percent, businesses of all types may see fewer qualified candidates for any job opening, and those candidates can be much pickier about which job they take. The need to provide solid reasons for a candidate to consider or a current employee to stay with a business is stronger than ever.
Too often, this causes employers to succumb to the "warm body" syndrome. If candidates even minimally meet the qualifications, they’re hired. Employers forget to consider whether this person’s personality and skills fit within their business’ dynamics. This leads to unhappy, dissatisfied employees and employers, which then leads to turnover — placing the employer right back into the employee search.
"It’s time shop owners wake up and take responsibility," says Larry Siembab, owner of Collision World CARSTAR in Berlin, Conn. "The techs are more important to our business than any equipment we have. We can’t grow without them. We’ve got to treat them as the valuable people they are or they’ll leave the industry."
How can shop owners retain their techs, increase their appeal to existing techs looking for employment and attract new workers to the industry? The most cost-effective strategy is to keep current techs happy.
No shop owner likes to lose a good tech. One way to ensure your techs stay is to make their jobs as rewarding as possible. You can partially accomplish this by paying competitive wages, providing good benefits, treating them with respect and trust, and involving them in decisions. You can also let your techs help you deal with any tech shortage by instituting a tech-training-tech program. This top-down system allows A-techs to train B-techs, B-techs to train C-techs and C-techs to train detailers or others in the shop wanting to become techs.
When setting up this program, be sure to work with your employees to establish the parameters, as well as some reward system. Keep in mind that although bonuses can be in the form of cash, they don’t need to be. Bonuses can include extra vacation days, paid tuition to training or college classes, or company parties and outings. By talking with your techs, you can find out what type of reward system they’d prefer.
Once a program is established, you can offer an added benefit to prospective employees. By making your shop a place that people want to continue working at, you’ll also make it a place where people want to start working.
And be sure to hire the "right" people. Ask your techs to participate in the interview process, and then listen to their input. After all, your current techs will be working with the new hires. If their personalities don’t mesh or if your current techs feel the new hires don’t possess the skills they should, you’ll likely be looking at more turnover. By letting candidates meet with your current techs, candidates will be able to determine if your shop is for them.
Siembab is so committed to employee retention and recruitment that he’s hired a dedicated human resource specialist. "I run a small shop — only eight people — but I know I can’t stay successful if I ignore my techs and everyone else who works for me," he says. "We’re re-writing our employee procedures manual, creating reward programs based on years of service and holding monthly meetings for all employees."
Another way to increase your appeal as an employer is by increasing your community involvement and visibility.
• Talk with area community colleges and vo-tech schools to see if you can help them improve their educational programs for collision repair.
• Try to get on their advisory boards.
• Offer assistance in establishing the appropriate curriculum.
• See if you or one of your techs can be a course instructor or guest speaker.
• Offer your shop as a site the school can use for hands-on classes.
"It’s a two-way street," says Jim Blankenship, owner of Jim Blankenship’s CARSTAR in Tulsa, Okla. "The colleges and vo-tech schools want to attract students. If their programs are good, then good students will [enroll] — and we’ll get good job candidates."
In addition, visit area junior and senior high schools and offer to speak at career-planning sessions. Join and work with local associations. These associations frequently have career-planning activities to help young people choose their career paths.
"A lot of cities have some type of mentoring program," says Blankenship. "I get a student each summer and assign him to one of my techs. I also provide the student with a small toolkit he can use. He gets to work side-by-side with the tech, helping with spot welding, sanding and all sorts of tasks. The techs love it, and the students get to see what the job is really about. On top of that, it increases production like you wouldn’t believe!"
"We’ve got to start blowing our own horn," says Siembab. "Collision repair isn’t the ‘dirty’ job it was 10 years ago. We wear shirts and ties, and work in a clean, healthy, safe environment. We have to let the kids hear that. We’ve got to let them know they can jumpstart their success by coming to work for us in an entry-level position, moving up in position and wage as they gain hands-on training.
"College is great, but college kids still have to start at the beginning when they enter the workforce," he says. "In that same four-year time span, the kids who start working for me after high school can become trained, qualified, experienced technicians."
When dealing with job candidates or employees in their 20s, remember they’re generation Xers. As cited in the book "Beyond Generation X" by Claire Raines and other sources, these relatively new entrants into the job market expect and demand a different work environment.
Gen Xers can be great employees if they’re given the right opportunities. They tend to be creative, independent and adaptable to change. Although they’ll require little supervision, they’ll want to know why they’re being asked to do something a certain way and won’t settle for "that’s the way we’ve always done it." They understand the importance of money and of making it go as far as possible. They aren’t intimidated by technology or — to the dismay of some employers — authority.
This generation wants an employer who appreciates their efforts and shows it. It’s not enough to talk about teams and teamwork. This generation will expect to participate in teams and have their opinions matter. They’ll also expect management to help them develop needed skills and provide room for growth.
"It takes a lot of communication," says Mark Theobald, co-owner of four CARSTAR collision centers in Ohio. "You’ve got to be creative and find different ways to get and keep your people. Most of all, you have to remember that staying successful is about your people. You can’t do it without them."
The Secret of Success
Another strategy shop owners can use to recruit employees is to work with local businesses that depend on the shop’s success for their success. Theobald works with a local, independent supplier. This supplier maintains and posts a "hot list" every week listing techs who are looking for jobs and shops that are looking for techs. The supplier also helps by putting out feelers for future openings or expansions.
By implementing these strategies and providing a positive work environment, shop owners may find there’s less of a tech shortage than they thought. In fact, they may find that prospective employees are literally knocking at their doors.
Writer Dan Bailey is vice president of operations for CARSTAR, Inc.