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Come Back! Impressing New Technicians to Stay

While off to a promising start, an apprentice left collision repair behind. Why? For starters, shortcutting techs didn’t want to take the time to teach, and insurance “procedures” didn’t offer him hope for a secure future. If you’re lucky enough to snag a future tech, remember: The impressions he gets will be lasting ones, so make them good.

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Writer Paul Bailey, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, has been a collision repairman for more than 20 years and is an avid photographer, writer and artist. Currently at work on what he expects to be his first book, Bailey resides in Florida with his wife, Cathy.

A young man named Shane was hired to wash cars and clean the body shop in a local dealership during the summer of 1995. He possessed minimal car repair skills and hadn’t attended vocational or trade school — but he did possess a sincere desire to learn a craft.

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By his third month on the job, Shane would finish his cleaning duties and then help any technician who needed basic tasks performed. Shane spent several hours each week performing R&I operations and setting up cars on frame machines, learning the very basics of collision repair.

Growing Your Own
The body shop manager hired another young man to take over Shane’s cleaning duties, allowing Shane to devote his full workday to assisting technicians. Shane was also given a $1-per-hour raise to help him afford tools.

I helped the proud young bodyman unload his first tool box from the back of his truck on a Saturday morning. He had a heavy-duty tool box and a sizable set of hand tools on lay-away at Sears when I offered the last $40 he needed to complete the purchase. He’d been making my tool payments with the work he’d been doing on my jobs, so I felt it was the least I could do for him.

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As the months went by, Shane continued to acquire tools, as well as the skills to use them. Soon he was completing light repairs from start to finish with little or no assistance from experienced technicians.

One afternoon, our shop manager called a meeting to discuss a new policy regarding Shane. He decided it would be best if Shane worked with just one technician at a time. To be fair, Shane would rotate around the shop, and the technician being helped would have 15 hours deducted from his monthly pay to help cover Shane’s wages.

In the months that followed, Shane worked his way around the shop, assisting each technician for a month at a time. Two bodymen preferred not to work with a helper. Of the remaining four (including myself), each spent a month assisting and supervising the young apprentice as he learned our craft.

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By the time Shane worked his way around the shop and back to me, he had grown adept in many areas of collision repair, yet I noticed a slight difference in some of his work habits.

Taking the Time to Teach
I began noticing that sometimes when Shane was in a rush, he’d use whatever bolts he could find to assemble the cars. One afternoon as he prepared to assemble a Ford Taurus for delivery the next day, I suggested he clear a space on my work bench to sort hardware. "Use the painted bolts to install sheet metal," I instructed. I also showed him the bolts most likely to be used for electrical grounds, mounting brackets for bumpers or headlights, and so on.

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"The other guys usually don’t go to all this trouble," Shane said as we finished the sorting.

"It’ll be worth the trouble," I replied.

As he proceeded with the assembly, Shane located the necessary hardware for each step quickly and easily. After that, I noticed, he always sorted hardware before assembling a vehicle.

Since Shane was always eager to learn a better way to do things, and since he took instruction well, I was surprised to learn at the end of the month that none of the other techs wanted to work with him.

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One technician told management that he "didn’t have time to baby-sit," while the other two complained about Shane being "too slow." "He slows me down more than he helps me," said one of the techs.

I couldn’t see how that was possible, but I didn’t argue. By process of elimination, I had acquired a full-time helper who already had a solid year of training under his belt.

At first, I gave Shane light hits to work on in addition to the R&I time he spent on big jobs. Unsure of what habits Shane may have learned elsewhere in the shop, I kept a close eye on his work, always encouraging him to ask questions. "I’m not the other guys," I would say. "If you’re not sure about something you’re doing, I’ll be glad to answer questions."

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I soon found myself answering a lot of questions, but I also learned a lot about the quality of repairs the other techs were producing. I soon concluded that I was in a typical American body shop, where things were being done in a "get it out the door" fashion and quality was sacrificed for speed.

A Technician — and Proud of It
As time went by and Shane’s skills improved, I found myself watching over him less frequently each week. The company and I split the cost of his I-CAR classes, and I loaned him study materials for an upcoming ASE exam. Shane was taking the training very seriously, learning everything he could about his new career. I knew he would soon be ready to work on his own.

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As Shane learned more advanced techniques, he began measuring and pulling his own cars and performing all the structural repairs himself. He was producing top-quality repairs from start to finish without supervision.

After passing his ASE test, Shane was given another raise, and the number of hours being deducted from my time was adjusted accordingly.

Slow Guys vs. Producers
One Monday morning, the body shop manager called a shop meeting to announce his termination. The dealership owner had made a deal with a major insurance company, and part of the deal was the replacement of our manager with their "selected representative who’s more adequately trained to work within [the insurance company’s] guidelines."

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By the end of that same week, the new manager fired one person in the office and three in the shop. Shane was spared because the company invested time and training in him. The new manager did, however, decide that Shane should be on flat rate. "Shane’s a big boy now," he said. "I think it’s time he sink or swim."

Although Shane accepted the new challenge and gave forth a diligent effort, he was (like myself) considered "one of the slow guys." Most often, the best paying, easiest wrecks to repair were assigned to the fastest guys in the shop — the butchers who had taught Shane some undesirable shortcuts. Shane was often left with little to do, other than factory warranty claims and whatever jobs none of the "producers" wanted, such as older cars that were to be repaired with aftermarket (A/M) parts.

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One afternoon, I noticed Shane was particularly troubled by the front-end of a Ford Taurus he was working on. After hours of re-aligning and re-adjusting, everything still fit like socks on a rooster. When I went over to help, the first thing I did was check the paperwork and, as usual, it called for all A/M parts. The fenders, hood, headlights, grille panel and bumper were all A/M. I spent the rest of the afternoon working with him on that car until those A/M parts couldn’t be made to fit any better.

Sure enough, the car returned again the following week with a few customer complaints, and Shane took care of the problems the best he could.

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Insurer Games Take Their Toll
Just as the young technician finally saw the last of that Ford Taurus, he was introduced to a new trick of the trade. Shane pulled a 12-mm side sway and a 16-mm right rail sag out of the front-end of a Pontiac Firebird, installed the hood and a fender, and sent the vehicle and the bumper cover to the paint shop.

Upon original inspection, the insurance company’s appraiser allowed four hours for the repair of the front-end and frame rail. The following week, the same insurance company’s "re-inspector" examined the vehicle in the paint shop, where it sat, masked and waiting to be painted. Though he never laid eyes on the vehicle in its damaged condition, the re-inspector concluded that there was no frame damage and deducted the setup time and the repair time from Shane’s estimate. The body shop manager offered no resistance.

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For the remainder of that week, Shane worked quietly and quickly on the rest of his assigned work. He didn’t take any breaks and didn’t slow down until lunch time on Friday. By then, one of his jobs was just coming out of the paint booth while every other job he had done was delivered or ready to deliver. By then, I noticed that Shane was finishing all of his work, but he wasn’t starting any new jobs.

Just as I suspected, the young man assembled his last job that Friday afternoon and began loading his tools.

Shane Says Good-Bye
Shane apologized to the crew for leaving after we took the time to help him learn a trade. As I helped him load his tools into the back of his truck, he said, "I hope you know how much I appreciate the time you spent working with me and helping me out."

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I gave him a reassuring nod as he went on: "I just can’t see a good future for myself in this business. The guys who do the sloppiest work around here are making the most money, and I wouldn’t ride in most of the cars they’ve worked on. Then I get a low price to do a job and, after I’m done, the price gets even lower. That’s not right."

The area’s best collision repairman under the age of 25 was leaving the industry to learn a trade with a brighter future. The following week, Shane began working with a local air-conditioning contractor installing duct work while he learned the rest of the craft. He was making as much money as in the body shop, and he had better benefits with the new job. More importantly, he was the happiest I’d seen him since the change in management at the body shop. It was his contentment with the new job that kept me from attempting to persuade him to try another body shop.

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Shane saw a body shop that’s too typical of the collision industry these days. He saw techs take poor-quality shortcuts and make more money than techs who didn’t take shortcuts. While I was telling him to do things right, others were telling him to do them fast. He also saw insurance company employees dictating the price of his hard work — a situation that occurred simply because a body shop manager and a dealership owner allowed it. As a result, the collision industry failed to offer Shane the stability he was looking for in a career.

We Wonder Why There’s a Tech Shortage
We, as an industry, must soon find better ways to recruit and retain new technicians. People search for careers every day, but the field of collision repair seems to be frequently overlooked. When I read the local classified ads, I often notice other trades offering training programs or on-the-job training, while collision repair ads usually request years worth of experience and tools.

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If your shop is too busy for your crew to keep up, yet not busy enough to hire another tech, you might consider implementing an apprenticeship program. Instead of running an ad under the "trades" classification, you could advertise in the "schools/training" section to attract potential trainees interested in entry-level positions.

As new apprentices develop their skills, employers should make training programs, such as paint seminars and frame classes, available to them. Extracurricular training, in addition to the hands-on experience the apprentice receives in the shop, will increase the speed at which he learns the trade, enabling him to generate a profit for the company early in his career.

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It’s also a good idea to have apprentices work with those technicians who have the fewest come-backs in the shop. While a wide variety of training from technicians with various skills and repair methods will thoroughly educate the apprentice, the more-detailed instruction of a perfectionist will create a better repair technician.

A complete set of quality hand tools can be purchased at Sears for a very reasonable price, and tools make a nice reward for new trainees who show a lot of promise after the first few months. Rewards boost the morale of promising young techs, making them feel valued by their employer. And employees who feel valued will be more productive and more loyal.

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The Future Begins with You
Before shop owners and technicians start to bemoan the lack of techs, they should ask themselves what part they’ve played in the shortage.

We collision repairers have been lamenting the fact that there aren’t enough of us, but when apprentices with great potential come along — like Shane — do we take the time to train them right? Do we offer them incentives to stay?

Everything you can do to encourage an apprentice to stay in the collision repair trade can benefit your shop, as well as the entire industry. The future of the collision repair industry lies in the hands of the people we pass it on to. Let’s pass it on without dropping the ball.

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Writer Paul Bailey, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, has been a collision repairman for 16 years and is an avid photographer and writer who maintains a consumer-awareness Web page in his spare time. He resides in Florida with his wife, Cathy.

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