Experience. How does someone get it? How do you hire people with it? Or, how do you develop it? These are interesting questions we ask ourselves every day due to the current shortage of experienced technicians and the lack of new people entering the auto body repair industry.
Facing the same questions, ABRA Auto Body & Glass started the SpringBoard apprentice program at its Career Development Academy, which takes a new approach to the apprentice program format.
As an industry, we use the terms A- or B-level technician. Technical colleges across the country are working hard to generate B-level techs, and we all want them to produce more. But it was time for something to supplement that that would allow individuals to get into our industry quickly and be productive. Something that would allow them to put their “toe in the water” and then let them launch into whatever direction is right for them.
To do this, ABRA defined a new role: the C-level technician. A C-level tech has a limited set of core skills and is very good at them, basics like bumper repair, minor dent repair and a few other skills. Skills that offer value to the shop but don’t make a “stand-alone” technician.
To be honest, I initially was skeptical at first and not very supportive. As an instructor involved in creating and delivering the program, it seemed outrageous. The vision was to create I-CAR Non-Structural Pro Level 1 and steel welding certified C-level technicians in only five weeks. Oh, and add in all ABRA New Hire Orientation and Safety material. And let’s do it in a real productive shop so they learn ABRA processes and a sense of urgency. And make sure it’s focused on hands-on learning. What a crazy idea. I actually said it was not possible. Now, I admit it works.
A Unique Approach
But the five-week program is just the beginning. After graduation, the SpringBoard apprentices go to a shop and continue their education with a mentor technician. There are signoffs to complete to achieve the C-level technician role. Mentor techs and shops need a clear understanding of what is the “right work” for the newly created C-level techs. Not every shop is a fit for this level of technician, so assignments have to made very thoughtfully. Thus the name “Career Development Academy.”
This accelerated training course builds a foundation to a career, not just a job. I’ve learned there is a huge difference between a job and a career. A job is where you go to get a check. A career is a goal orientation to achieve success and security. In today’s workplace, that is a major concern. It’s not always about money. Very few people actually realize how much job security there is in the auto body industry.
The five-week course of Monday through Saturday is designed to give apprentices hands-on experience and classroom training, but the focus is on hands-on training. This training is done while in an active shop environment, which offers the reality of what is and will be expected and the learning of all procedures and SOPs for all repairs that a new technician would be doing. The understanding of how a shop functions and knowing what’s expected on the first day in their assigned shop and mentor reduces tension and concerns.
Remember, though, we’re accelerating apprentices, not full technicians. That’s accomplished later when they have gained more experience.
Again, though, ABRA’s program is not meant to compete in any way with any technical colleges or other programs. These are ABRA employees we believe have the passion to learn and develop a career. It’s a way for graduates of this program to get into an industry, a company, and get experience. The contract these new employees sign with ABRA makes it so they have “skin in the game.” This experience and knowledge helps them accelerate to where they want to be as a technician or more in the industry. It can also give people who couldn’t afford to go to college a chance to get into the collision repair industry.
We are excited by the number of veterans who have applied and been hired. They’re incredible and exciting to work with. Imagine training people who really want to be there and learn.
The interview process and hiring into the program is based on what they bring in as far as work ethic and enthusiasm. We hire people who want a career, not just a job. This makes a huge difference in attitude toward learning. The paid training and tool program when individuals are accepted into the program has been a big factor in attracting applicants. Because they’re hired and paid while doing the training, they’re employees, not students. Honesty and integrity along with respect are stressed to be sure they know expectations, but we really look for enthusiasm. That’s a major key.
A Life-Changing Experience
What has been life changing to me, though, is hearing about so many people trying to find careers and a place to learn and work and provide for their families. The struggles and hardship for many is more real than you or I realize. I’ve gone home exhausted and humbled by all this. I’m no longer taking so much for granted. These technicians are so eager to learn and do the right thing, and they want to be in this industry.
I hear so many people complain about a lot of issues in our industry, but if they spent a day here and talked with people who want to learn and work and listened to their stories and background, they might change their tune.
This training has already brought into ABRA and our industry a great number of technicians, with a lot more scheduled next year. When an industry such as the auto body repair industry needs to fix a problem, sometimes we just have to think outside the box.