I’ve come to the conclusion that many shops in our industry are being held hostage by their technicians. The inmates are running the asylum. Ever feel that way? I’m sure many of you do. I talk with a lot of shop owners and managers every week and, while they might not put it in those exact words, that’s essentially what they’re saying.
Not long ago, a shop owner told me he couldn’t get his techs to do what he wanted them to do; for example, start an apprenticeship system. When they got the slightest hint that he was about to ask them to do something they were opposed to, they would threaten to roll their tool boxes out the door and work for someone else or open their own shop.
This shop owner was scared that if some of his techs left, he would be up a creek, maybe even to the point of having to close his doors. I was afraid, too, because I feared this situation might be more the norm than the exception.
Case in point: A group of techs (four out of six) at a shop in the western United States came into the owner’s office with a list of demands. They wanted more pay, benefits and vacation time, and they wanted it now or they were going to work for a competitor who had supposedly offered them a better deal.
In addition, these techs wanted the owner to kill their in-house apprenticeship program because they said it was a threat to their jobs and earning potential. They figured their unified front, representing 67 percent of the shop’s technical workforce, would carry a lot of weight. And guess what? It did. The owner, with his back to the wall, had to make a decision right away. Four guys, representing hundreds of thousands of dollars of billable labor, were threatening to leave if their demands weren’t met.
Are these the kind of employees you want working for you? Maybe these are the kind of employees you already have in your shop. With the “independent contractor” mentality that seems so prevalent in the collision repair industry, where techs are running a business within a business, I think a lot of shops encounter this exact same situation.
So what did this owner do? He bravely called their bluff. He’s run- ning a business and, with the tight margins he was working with, he simply couldn’t meet these techs’ demands and stay in business. The techs didn’t expect that kind of response, and they were shown the door right then and there. The owner, though in a bind for a while, had a strong enough reputation in his market that he was able to replace these guys with people who were more team players.
It’s critically important that no shop become too dependent on any one employee or team of employees because it makes it vulnerable. Some techs realize the power they have and leverage it for all it’s worth. If you like free agency in pro football, you’re going to love it in our industry because that’s where we’re headed. In fact, we’re already there in many markets. I’m hearing about techs shopping themselves around town looking for the best deal, demanding signed, 18-month contracts with the option to renew or find the next best offer at that time. They want extra benefits and signing bonuses. And guess what? They’re getting these deals.
I even heard about a super-producing tech who demanded that he never be given any comeback work! He was very good and had little comeback work to begin with but, just in case, he didn’t want to lose production or, more importantly, money by having to do comebacks. Did he get that deal? Indeed.
Have a Backup Plan
If an employee threatens to leave, you obviously must question his or her loyalty to your shop. But if you don’t have the people to back up someone who’s leaving, you’ve got trouble. All the more reason for building an effective apprenticeship system in your shop.
Ask yourself this question, and be honest: If an employee threatens to leave if you don’t do this or that, are you prepared to respond by saying, “If that’s what you want to do, fine. Pack up your stuff and get out. We’ll replace you. We want loyal team players around here. If that’s not you, then don’t let the door hit you on your way out.”
Can you honestly do that? Or would it bring a certain amount of your production to a long-term standstill because you don’t have a plan for replacing him or her, or an apprenticeship system in place for moving someone up the career ladder?
Could you call his or her bluff? You could…but only if you’re in a position to weather that short-term storm. If you aren’t, then, as a progressive business owner or manager, you must strive to get to that point. And building your people through an apprenticeship system is the best way to get there. (By the way, employees who make these kinds of threats are not good mentor candidates because they lack the loyalty you want to instill in new people.)
Mike Anderson, owner of Wagonwork Collision Centers in Alexandria, Va., has faced down this threat. A couple years ago, through a third party, he found out that his painter and a couple painter helpers had been recruited by a new shop that was going to open its doors in three months. Their plan was to just keep working for Anderson until it was time to jump ship and take that “sweet deal” this new competitor promised. So basically, they weren’t going to tell Anderson until it was time to leave.
When Anderson found out what his guys were planning to do, he confronted them to see if this was in fact their plan, and they confirmed it. He fired them on the spot, sending them and their tools out the door so fast it made their heads spin. “If that’s the extent of their loyalty to us, then I have no obligation to them,” Anderson said.
Anderson could do that, though, because he had apprentices in place and an effective set of standard operating procedures (SOPs) in an effective, deliverable form. He was able to recruit a top-level painter, move his trainees up the ladder and not suffer too much of a production hit. They’re now doing more work than before with fewer people.
Could you do that? Do you have the people in place to fill the gaps? Do you have SOPs? Do you have an apprenticeship system? Do you have the courage?
Courage Is the Key
According to Michael Giarrizzo Sr., courage is what it takes. His family’s company, DCR Systems, has reinvented the collision repair process and involved its employees throughout the entire transformation. The end result is a lean-based system that’s a showcase of what’s possible in
According to Giarrizzo, “There’s a blend you have to create rather than draw the line and say, ‘On Monday, this is where we’re going to be.’ For us, the courage came from our undying dedication to make a change in the industry. Our focus was on the customer and the employee, and how we could create a consistent, predictable product.
“You can’t make this model based on techs, because what if they don’t show up for work? We looked at the needs of the industry and the desire of the consumer and the tech. We had a group of techs who said, ‘Whatever you do, count us in.’ We told them we would take away their tools and provide them with our own. We told them to map out their own pay plans and give us, and themselves, something more predictable. We got off flat rate and commission. The master techs with 20-plus years were tired of fighting it every day like so many do, which leads many to move out of the technical side of the business. DCR wanted to take out the stress of the daily job and, at the same time, elongate their careers. And that’s what we did.”
Giarrizzo remembers a fellow shop owner who came to tour the new DCR Systems headquarters shop. This two-shop owner runs a good, traditional-model operation. But, like many, he turns his head the other way when techs do certain things because he doesn’t want to rock the boat for fear they might leave. After seeing DCR’s model, this shop owner recognized the courage it took for DCR to take the steps it did.
Regarding this shop owner who toured DCR, Giarrizzo said, “He may not have the courage to do this, or more likely he can’t conjure up the energy to make the necessary changes. He’s satisfied with where he’s at, makes a nice living and has no desire to change things. It takes a lot of energy to manage change.”
But what if his employees back him up against the wall with a list of demands? That’s a possibility thousands of shop owners around the country need to come to terms with. And when they do, they need a mode of action.
Having a plan for workforce development is absolutely essential for anyone who intends to be in business five, 10 or 15 years from now and beyond. But, as Giarrizzo points out, “You need both courage and energy to roll out the changes, then hold firm to the process and have the discipline to maintain it.”
Don’t let the inmates run your asylum. Running your business should be your job and no one else’s. But if you don’t have the human resources to do so, the inmates might just hold you hostage.
You can take the steps necessary to avoid this situation or dig yourself out of it if you’re already in it. Use a proven apprenticeship system or create your own, but for the sake of the long-term success of your business, do something about this situation.
In the book “Customers for Life: How to Turn That Onetime Buyer Into a Lifelong Customer,” Carl Sewell, the owner of several major auto dealerships in Texas and Louisiana doing well over a billion dollars in sales, says that people work so they can improve their quality of life and provide for themselves and their families. If they do excellent work and are team players, the business owners they work for owe it to them to help them achieve their goals. And the only way to do that is to stay in business, which means making a profit.
If we’re making money, providing a great place to work, attracting top-quality people and paying them well, and if we have a plan for moving new people into our business, we take the fear factor out of running our business. We manage our business rather than having our employees call the shots. Shop owners should set this as a goal, and insurers should recognize those who do because it will be those shops that will still be in business for the long term. And it’s those shops that will be doing the best work, as well.
Confessions of an Apprentice
When everyone’s on the same page, from management on down, human resources becomes much easier. Building your employee base through apprenticeships becomes the norm, and the future is much more secure. Check out this quote from Vince Williams, an apprentice at Alta Sierra Bodycraft in Roseville, Calif.:
“I don’t want to call it fun; otherwise, we’d call it going to fun in the morning. But for the first time in a long time, I’m actually having a little fun at work. I must thank my mentor, Clark, for taking the time and spending some money to train me, and Brian (manager) for finding a good apprenticeship system and offering me a great chance to learn. Thanks also goes to Larry (shop manager) for the constant support and the constructive criticism about the fine details of repairing vehicles, like covering and protecting things.
“In fact, I want to thank the entire Alta Sierra crew, painters, parts, detail and office staff who seem to understand that I’m trying hard to learn excellence. They offer nothing but respect, good advice and encouragement. I know that what’s left for me to learn is probably going to be the hardest, but again I welcome the challenge and appreciate the opportunity.”
This is what it’s all about. It shows that Alta Sierra Bodycraft’s apprenticeship system is hitting on all cylinders.
First, Williams is having fun, and that’s going to be good for retention purposes. At the time he wrote this, he had been with the apprenticeship system for a year and had earned his mentor’s signoff on nearly 200 tasks.
Second, he’s appreciative, respectful and humble. He thanks his mentor, Clark Myers, for taking the time to teach him, his managers for their support and “constructive criticism,” and the entire staff at the shop. When the whole team supports the apprenticeship system, the apprentice has the best opportunity to shine. Too many shops throw their apprentices to the wolves, who chew them up and spit them out.
Notice that Williams acknowledged the encouragement he receives from staff. That’s important because the number one reason employees leave their places of employment is the lack of praise and encouragement. Giving praise and encouragement is free, yet so few offer it up. Those who do it well specifically point out what they see that they like. It’s not enough to praise the whole staff together; you must offer it up individually. What gets rewarded and recognized gets repeated. What doesn’t gets discarded.
Williams also shows that he’s in the right frame of mind to “bring it home” and finish his apprenticeship. He doesn’t suffer from the “too big for his britches” syndrome that so many new hires are afflicted with. He realizes that the final skills and competencies he needs to learn are the most complicated and challenging, and he welcomes the challenge.
Finally, Williams recognizes that Alta Sierra Bodycraft is providing him with an opportunity.
Compared with most shops that wing it and fly by the seat of their pants, his employer is using a proven system to train him, which is cutting the learning curve at least in half. He recognizes that the apprenticeship system forms the framework, and the key players, i.e., his mentor, manager and staff, are all implementing the system.
BSB Contributing Editor Mark Claypool is the vice president of operations for VeriFacts Automotive and the founder of Mentors At Work (now a division of VeriFacts) and Select Tech Professional Services. He has 25 years of experience in the fields of workforce development, business education partnerships and apprenticeships. Claypool is the former executive director of the I-CAR Education Foundation and the National Auto Body Council (NABC). He was the national director of development for SkillsUSA/VICA and serves, on a volunteer basis, as the TeamUSA Leader for the WorldSkills Championships.