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Where Have All the Auto Body Technicians Gone Part 2

The traditional ways of getting technicians are not keeping up with the demand of today’s shops. What do we as an industry need to do to draw young people into this trade? Part 2 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]

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In Part 1 of this article last month, I wrote abut the need for technicians in the auto repair industry. Body technicians are in short supply and getting shorter. Drawing new talent in is difficult at best. The traditional ways are not keeping up with the demand of today’s shops. There is no one reason to blame except change. What do we as an industry need to do to draw young people into this trade?

New Techs

The first thing I want to say is thank you to all the shops that put in the effort to grow technicians. It not only helps each individual shop but also the entire industry. Thanks also to all the mentors who sacrifice time, patience and money to teach a new person our industry. Technical college instructors deserve credit too. The struggles of teaching and maintaining programs with today’s challenges in job market competition is a tremendous challenge. And that’s the focus of this article: the challenge of bringing in new technicians.

Many high schools are steering students to different professions and not towards the trades. The automotive trade program is not the only one to suffer this issue. How do we convince not only young people but schools that there’s a career in this industry? Not just a job, but a great career? After the recent recession, so many people lost jobs, and competition in jobs remains high. And yet here we all sit with a shortage of technicians, with the problem growing.

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A New Approach

How many people have found a career in this industry? I always ask technicians or possible new hires, “Where do you want to be in 10 years?” Also, “What do you want?” Most have given this some thought, but not as much as they could.

I always hear people say we have jobs in this industry. We do, but what we really have is careers. This industry has a lot to offer any person coming in, and not just with traditional body work and painting. With electronics becoming more and more a part of the repair process, we also need new tech-savvy technicians, people who were raised with electronics and have a good understanding of it. The avenues of careers are endless. Talking to prospective employees about a career not just a job may help them to visualize a future or recognize their own ambitions. Starting and giving a technician a career path to where they want to go keeps them goal-oriented and looking to the future. Seeing a big picture is important to all of us.

Let’s look at our traditional way. We look for techs coming out of tech schools. With the basics under their belt, we hire them. We team them up with a mentor. If all goes well, they learn the trade and the business. They gain experience. It seems so simple, but it’s not entirely so.

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It all seems to be based on a hit-or-miss mentality. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Having an interest in cars isn’t enough to make it a career. Most shops can’t afford to gamble with losing all that time and training cost. Although many shops had success with this traditional method in the past, it was based on a somewhat good feeder program from schools, so there were more prospects to choose from. Today is different. Most shops can’t afford to fail. Many shops also fear the time and commitment to train someone, only to have them go to another shop. There are also some other drawbacks that could complicate the process:

  1. We all want experienced technicians. Taking the time and effort to teach someone can slow a shop’s production, making it costly for a mentor.
  2. Not all personalities mesh. Sometimes two people can’t work together.
  3. Will they learn the skills needed? Working on classics is different than working on insurance work. Both have similar skills but different approaches. The issue of, “Is the mentor teaching the proper skills?” also must be discussed.
  4. Adding inexperienced technicians adds more cost to training.
  5. Cost. The cost is more than some shops can bare.

There are more complications you could add to that list, but the bottom line is overcoming the obstacles that cause the failures. But overcoming these challenges comes at a price to shops. Are you willing?

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In the last year, I’ve learned a great deal in a new role at my employer, ABRA Auto Body & Glass. Training new techs has reached critical stages for all shops big and small. My employer took a new approach, and since then my thought process on training has expanded.

I know other MSOs such as Service King have started programs too. The big issue for MSOs is that expanding is tough when you’re faced with a technician shortage. No matter how big or small your shop, the obstacles are very similar. This technician shortage may not be a problem for your shop now, but it will be.

What Are You Looking For?

I used to think experience was the key. Now, I’ve changed my philosophy and am more interested in ethics.

Work ethic is a critical factor to success. The drive to do the right thing and be responsible for your work is priceless. The drive to learn and do well is a key to successful careers of all kinds.

We live in the land of opportunity, not entitlement. If I find a person with a great work ethic and drive to succeed, I have a great foundation already. From there, we can teach a technician what they need to know. An inexperienced technician with a good work ethic is and will be more valuable than an experienced technician with no work ethic. It’s a bold statement, but I’ve recently found this to be so true. With this foundation, you can build loyalty by being honest and showing them that they can have a career, not just a job. Look back at your own successful mentoring programs and you’ll see that this is true. It was the technician who had a good work ethic who was successful in becoming a top-rate technician or even manager or owner.

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When you find that work ethic, no matter where you see it, say something, whether you’re talking to your own employees or even to a waiter in a restaurant. We’re always criticizing people in our society today. Start looking for the good and comment on it. Recognition and appreciation go a long way with people today. Train yourself to comment on the good, not the bad.

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Work ethic more than experience is a critical factor to success.

I met a young kid one day at a fast food chain who was doing the job he was required and then some. He was going out of his way to make sure every customer was happy. I asked him if he liked working on cars, and it turned out it was a hobby he really liked. He couldn’t afford technical college so he never thought of applying to see if there was a mentor program or something similar with other companies. I gave him a card and said we had a career for him if he wanted one.

You never know where the next great employee will come from. Take a chance and look for them. The point I’m trying to make is, think outside the box. So many prospects don’t know there’s such a thing as mentor training. They think the only way to get into this industry is technical college. Please understand that I think colleges are great. I respect the job they do and challenges they face in teaching new technicians. Experience is helpful, but if I find someone who’s willing to work and learn, I’ll work with them. A willingness to learn is key.

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Skin in the Game

You’re going to invest time and money into training someone. When you find that work ethic, you want make it worth their while. You also of course want to cover your cost.

How long does it take before an employee or technician starts making you money? How do you keep technicians long term and reduce your cost? Incentives. But it’s not always about pay. Have them contract with you for their training. Give them or grant them milestone bonuses or even tools for reaching a certain number of years served or training. This encourages them to stay with you for the training. Now, you have time to build their loyalty. Educating the trainee on their training will take years, not months or weeks, but will give them real expectations of how much there is to learn. Letting them know up front your time and cost to this commitment will give them a sense of when their training will be completed. They may be done earlier than your agreement. That’s great, and is a credit to them or their mentor. By contracting with them, you can train but also get a return on your investment, because as they improve, they’ll start increasing production.

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If they contract on time, provide a benefit or reward they’ll get to keep after their contract is ended. Yes, they may leave after the time has ended, but if you’ve properly groomed or brought them along and they see what you’ve invested in them and feel like an important part of the team, they won’t leave.

Respect and appreciation are some of the best benefits you can offer. Pay only goes so far. To get up each morning and like what you do and like your job is more important than people think. Major companies do research on why employees leave a company, and lack of respect or appreciation tops the list. The reality is that people will only put up with so much before they leave.

Not a Competition

I am not espousing that we encourage people not to go to school. I am saying many people aren’t going to go to school. This does not mean they should not be in our industry.

The desire to learn and drive to succeed should always be nurtured and praised. You may find it in strange places. I recently worked with a new, inexperienced apprentice. She was actually a tattoo artist who dreamed of working on cars. She applied for the ABRA Auto Body & Glass Springboard program, was accepted and turned out to be one of the hardest workers and best welders I’ve ever seen. She made a believer out of me that if a person has the will to learn, they will.

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Think outside the box. Find that drive to succeed and you’ll be surprised. Offer them a future with job security and growth, then let them blossom. They’ll get out of it what they put into it.

For recent tech school graduates, it’s hard to get the experience everyone wants. Getting into a good shop that will help a tech along is critical to keeping them in the industry. Many shops have discouraged technicians by giving them tasks and expectations they weren’t ready for. Building confidence and starting at their level or ability gives them a winning chance at success. You may have wanted an experienced technician, but remember: there are fewer and fewer of them.

Mentors

Mentors need to be brought into the mix, too. They need to be, for lack of a better term, “taken care of.”

The prospect of mentoring is a big job. In the beginning, it can slow a technician down. This lost revenue can discourage techs from wanting to be mentor. Plus, being responsible for issues and mistakes is a challenge.

An apprentice program should also help the mentor and keep them in a position where mentoring someone remains a positive action and doesn’t hinder them. This creates positive attitudes in the mentor and apprentice and helps the two personalities work together rather than get frustrated.

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New technicians need positive role models who will help them see what’s possible versus negative role models who pretty much wreck the process.

The most experienced tech in the shop may not be the perfect choice to be a mentor. Find the technician who will give the best overall experience. Many times, this also makes an experienced technician up his game too as now he sees himself as a teacher. It’s really amazing to see change and growth in both the new and experienced technician.

Focus on the Positives

We need to focus on positives in our industry. Talk about the good, and present a future.

There’s good pay for an organized technician. Most people still remember the recession and how people lost their jobs. This industry is almost recession-proof. I know may shops that keep substandard technicians just because they need them for production as the technician shortage deepens. We all see it. Nobody wants to say it.

By rethinking our process and going out and finding people versus waiting for them to show up at our door may be the difference between staying in business or not. That experienced technician you need and loyal employee you want may be some training away.

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Are you willing to invest? What are you going to do about? Research programs that are successful and see what it takes to succeed. You need technicians. We all do.

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