For most people in our industry, the minute you mention competition, they think about the ongoing contest with other collision repair facilities for customers. They envision the obvious factors: cycle time, customer service, location, marketing and advertising campaigns, and insurer relationships.
While those aspects of competition are critical concerns, there’s another, probably more important area in which we compete with our peers: the ongoing contest to source, recruit and retain quality technicians.
Recruiting and retaining well-trained technicians demands the same dedication and commitment you apply to relationships with individual consumers and insurers in your community. While our industry has changed dramatically over the past two decades, the role of certified techs remains an intrinsic ingredient in the formula for success. In fact, when you consider the role techs play in our business, they’re the strongest link between present conditions and future profitability.
Before I joined CARSTAR, I owned and operated two body shops in the Kansas City area. I invested endless hours and significant dollars in the process of sourcing, hiring and retaining techs. Today, as a member of CARSTAR’s corporate management team, I still believe firmly in a three-step recipe for winning the competition for certified techs:
1. Develop creative sourcing programs that go beyond the basics of classified ads or job fairs;
2. Use smart hiring techniques to be sure prospective techs match your shop’s current climate and needs; and
3. Reward techs in your shop with competitive benefits programs and a respectful environment.
1. Master the art of creative sourcing.
At its meeting last December, the Collision Industry Conference’s (CIC) Human Resources Committee delivered a report on recruiting and retaining employees. The findings were both expected and enlightening for anyone involved in staffing body shops in recent years.
“The looming issue for this industry isn’t aftermarket parts, labor rates or consolidation,” said the CIC report. “It’s human resources. The collision industry’s No. 1 challenge is the overwhelming and increasing shortage of human resources.”
The CIC report also revealed research findings related to employee recruiting and retention. Among the findings, the CIC stated, “Ninety-five percent of shops advertise in local newspapers and aren’t happy with the results.”
When was the last time you ran a classified ad that attracted qualified techs? Last month? Last year? Never? I imagine a few shops have filled open positions by running a classified notice, but most owners and managers know the best way to find new techs is by being more creative than the competition. Successful sourcing requires imagination, persistence and creativity.
For Mark Theobald, president of Cincinnati Collision Center CARSTAR, creative sourcing begins with resourceful relationships. “We use word-of-mouth quite often to get the word out that we’re looking for new techs,” says Theobald. “We talk to folks in the industry to let their friends and relatives know about our current openings. If they’re interested in learning the ropes, we can put them under our wing and develop them. And they sometimes have more of a desire to really learn the industry than other applicants.”
Industry participation is also an essential element for creative sourcing. For example, I’m involved with the Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS) local chapter in Kansas City. To facilitate sourcing and hiring at local body shops, our chapter invites instructors from every vo-tech school within a 75-mile radius of Kansas City to our annual career night. The instructors bring one or two students who are getting ready to graduate, and these students have the opportunity to talk about their experience and career interests. It’s a tremendous opportunity to recruit new grads. It’s also a great way to create grassroots public-relations efforts for the industry and local body shops.
Another concept to remember in creative sourcing is the 24/7 formula: Keep your current and future staffing opportunities in mind around the clock. You never know when you’ll meet someone who’ll lead you to a qualified candidate … during a trip to the grocery store, at an airport ticket counter, behind the concession stand at the football stadium. Everywhere you go, there’s a chance you’ll meet someone who’s interested in a new career path.
When you do meet these people, it’s a good idea to have an easy way to provide contact information and career details. That’s why we turned our CARSTAR business cards into mini-sourcing tools. On the back of each card, we include a listing of our benefits, along with an open invitation to call toll-free 24 hours a day for more information on career opportunities. It’s a terrific way to promote our benefits program and to let prospective employees know what they’ll find once they join our team.
2. Increase your smart hiring IQ.
Once you’ve attracted potential candidates for your shop, the challenge becomes hiring the right individuals. This part of the recipe for hiring success is critical. If you hire someone who isn’t committed to your shop, you run the risk of alienating your other techs.
And the need for a smart hiring IQ applies to seasoned industry pros as well as newcomers. “It usually takes six to nine months before you recoup from the investment of hiring someone who’s just finished school,” says Theobald. “The first few months are at the company’s or shop’s expense to train them, so you need to be certain they’re a good addition to your team before you bring them on board.”
But determining if a new hire is the right hire is an inexact science. After more than 25 years in the industry, I still find it challenging to calculate someone’s level of commitment and interest by only talking with them. And there are so many factors to consider: their current capabilities, their personality, how well you think they’ll mix with your current techs, etc. It can be an interesting process, and competition for talented new techs can make it even more dynamic.
Smart hiring becomes even more critical when the unemployment rate is low or when economic downturns lead to layoffs in related industries. “In the past several months, numerous layoffs have expanded the pool of available applicants somewhat,” says Nancy Staley, human resources consultant with Gallagher Benefit Services. “As the labor pool increases, employers must focus more on selecting the right candidate than on attracting applicants.”
Consider this checklist when you evaluate your current hiring procedures:
- Team interviews – When you find someone you think will be a good addition to your staff, have current techs spend a few minutes talking with the applicant. This peer-to-peer feedback is invaluable to the hiring process and may provide critical information to include in the overall decision.
- Candidate visits – While prospective techs will spend time interviewing in your office or with current team members, it’s also a good idea to invite them to spend time in the shop under more casual circumstances. For example, if you have a weekly staff meeting or similar employee gathering, ask the candidate to join you for the session. It’ll give him an opportunity to ask more questions and to observe your shop during a typical workday. This can be helpful for both you and the candidate as you consider a future working relationship.
- Take your time – Will the candidate be a strong member of your team? Are you making the right decision? Take time to review and carefully consider all the deciding factors in your hiring process to determine if the candidate will be a good addition to your shop. The adage “haste makes waste” applies to the hiring process in more ways than one. While you want to fill the opening, you don’t want to create negative repercussions with your present team, quality levels or reputation.
3. Reward wisely.
OK, you’ve followed the first two steps in the recipe for successful staffing: creative sourcing and smart hiring. Your shop is fully staffed, there’s a steady flow of new business, and every customer and insurer is satisfied.
Think you’ve won the staffing competition?
As an owner/operator or manager, your role in staffing is continuous. The real human resources challenge begins the minute a new tech joins your team. You must keep him motivated, informed and satisfied to ensure he’ll remain on your team.
At CARSTAR, we believe a substantial benefits program helps retain techs and other employees. In addition to excellent pay, our benefits package includes plenty of attractive incentives, including paid vacations and holidays, tuition reimbursement, 401k profit sharing, medical and dental coverage, and life insurance.
Besides benefits, Theobald says that offering ongoing training is also valuable in retaining techs. To do this, he brings in vendors to present continuing education seminars related to their products or services, pays for I-CAR and ASE certifications, and provides ongoing training through CARSTAR University Online.
Flexible schedules can also be an attractive incentive for some techs. In some situations, techs begin their day earlier or later than the rest of the team to compensate for personal needs, such as childcare or school. In addition to accommodating the other areas of their life, the flex approach instills greater levels of trust because techs have keys to the body shop so they can start early or stay after regular business hours.
One Last Secret to Recruiting & Retaining
In the end, the single most important factor in recruiting and retaining techs is workflow.
“Techs want to work in shops that are busy,” says Theobald. “We like to keep them informed with regular meetings, and make sure they have updated equipment and a safe working environment. But the biggest thing is to keep the cars coming. A full shop is always a busy people shop, and that’s a winning situation for everyone involved.”
Writer Dan Bailey is vice president of operations for CARSTAR.