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From Classroomes to Computers

Employee education has evolved from printed manuals to virtual classrooms. But is virtual as good as the real thing?

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When I first started in collision repair nearly 25 years ago, employee training was as basic as the three Rs: reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. Most people relied on tinkering or vocational schools to get started. After that, they advanced to crash books or manufacturers’ manuals since little other training was available. Not to mention, cars were simpler then, and the pace of business was slower.

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At that time in our industry, computer estimating didn’t exist and the term “cycle time” was unheard of. In most instances, newcomers – both owners and technicians – learned the trade by watching seasoned pros.

Times have changed.
Today, the operating pace in our industry has accelerated, and those not running at or near that quickened pace will drop out. Though employee training is a necessity, it’s difficult because you’re required to take a person out of the shop – and the shop feels the loss. On the other hand, shops can’t allow a stumbling front office crew to damage business relationships with dealers or insurers.

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In today’s technology-driven marketplace, every aspect of our industry – and that includes employee training – is becoming wired to the Internet. We promote our companies, products and services on interactive Web sites. We use e-commerce solutions to upload and download insurance claims, order parts and supplies, and pay invoices at the speed of a double click. And e-mail is no longer an interesting toy; it’s become a necessity we use to stay in touch with insurance carriers, vendors and customers. The natural evolution of employee education has taken us from printed manuals with grease-stained pages to virtual classrooms featuring self-study programs.

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Online Training: Efficient & Effective
As a long-standing champion of technology, I’m committed to online training as a productivity and profitability resource. People can’t wait to be trained, and shops can’t wait on trainers.

In the late 1970s, I bought a Radio Shack Model II computer to automate my body shop’s business management systems. It was a revolutionary step, and many of my competitors laughed at the idea of having a computer in a body shop.

Today, nobody’s laughing. Body shops have the highest hardware and software demand of any segment of the auto industry. The demand from the insurance community for rapid appraisal communication forces shops to understand computers, software and now the Internet.

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If you want to run an efficient business, you need to organize and manage information, beginning with how you train and develop the employees who’ll ensure your operation’s success. And you can expect more and more training and information to be delivered online.

Is online training effective? Will it replace current employee training methods? I can answer both questions since I have practical, hands-on experience.

Is online training effective? Yes.

In most cases, Internet-based employee education programs deliver consistent training on a continuous basis. Some companies use a dedicated Intranet system with secure access and individual passwords to give employees the option to train any time at home or work – 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. In addition to around-the-clock convenience, online training programs also provide flexibility and efficiency.

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Will online training completely replace traditional instruction? No. When it comes to critical portions of the collision repair process, hands-on training is irreplaceable. The subtle tips and techniques a seasoned veteran can pass on to industry newcomers can’t be duplicated by any online training program. There’s nothing like standing in the garage beside a collision repair veteran to learn how he handles the intricate details of his job.

The cultural aspects and exchange of ideas among participants at a classroom meeting is invaluable and doesn’t occur online. Cross pollination of thought occurs where occupational students challenge the teacher and learn from each other.

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For these areas, we’ll always need one-on-one, hands-on instruction. Learning online doesn’t mean you can do the job. It means you can comprehend concepts and pass a test. For example, we’ll always need new employees to spend some time with a manager, corporate trainer or another employee with substantial experience to learn the appropriate procedures and practices for activities like appraisal training, production management, paint and paint prep.

Benefits of Internet-Based Training
Online training can be tailored to address the individual needs of each organization. At CARSTAR, our Internet-based training program – CARSTAR University OnLine – provides company-owned and franchise facilities instant access to training and testing materials. The lessons are designed to our specifications and standards, and they range from a basic overview of the collision repair industry to courses that address paper flow, bookkeeping, customer handling and specific responsibilities and roles of technicians, customer service representatives, estimators and office managers.

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While there are numerous advantages to Internet-based training, its resourcefulness begins with these fundamental benefits:

  • Timeliness. You can get training any time you want it – day or night, weekends or weekdays.
  • Consistency. Internet-based training systems ensure consistent training and testing. There are no instructor variations; every employee who completes his training online receives exactly the same information and material. He’s also evaluated in exactly the same manner with a series of integrated quizzes and exams.
  • Flexibility. With online training systems, you can instantly update and change courses and material. This guarantees efficient, cost-effective roll-out of new training and testing materials. With traditional training methods, you can encounter substantial costs to create, print and distribute manuals and testing materials. Today, with integrated administrative features, it’s easy to revise individual modules in a matter of minutes.
  • Efficiency. Internet training programs reduce or even eliminate travel and seminar costs. They also allow new and tenured employees to balance work and training without extended absences for out-of-town training classes.

The most resourceful Internet-based training programs expand and complement traditional classroom training programs. At CARSTAR, our employees have completed more than 2,700 training and testing modules. We continue to develop the system, and we’ll add classes on an equally broad spectrum of subjects, including parts inventory control, employee reviews, marketing and production management.

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The Competitive Edge
Besides employee skills, performance and overall effectiveness, online training also has a direct effect on a repair facility’s competitive advantage. During the past few years, our industry has experienced significant changes that demand rapid training. Owners are streamlining their operations to improve cycle time. Insurance companies have revamped their policies and procedures, and this impacts nearly every facet of our business. And the pool of well-trained mechanics, painters and body technicians is extremely low, making it difficult to hire, train, and retain qualified – and quality – employees.

Competition has created a marketplace influenced by many different forces, requiring all of us to keep one eye on the future and the other on our competition. It’s been my experience in this industry that the only sustainable competitive advantage is to learn faster than the competition. And minds that want to grow crave information.

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Two years ago, we created CARSTAR University Online to improve and accelerate the standardization of store operations. After significant investment, we developed an online training process that will impact every facet of our business. Like many new developments, it will be a constantly evolving enterprise. With ongoing analysis and maintenance, our Internet university will continue to provide cost-effective training that benefits our employees as well as our customers and insurance companies.

How cost-effective is it? The online training costs of CARSTAR University Online allows CARSTAR stores to train all their front office staff in all programs for less than the cost to send one person away for two-day training. The approximate savings of training all of the staff each year is at least $5,000 over traditional classroom training.

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And our employees love our new online system. It provides them with specific tasks, timetables and training guideposts so they can gauge their development and gain greater confidence during training. Also, standard operating procedures and how we measure adherence to those procedures in a standardized way is an important issue in our Internet-based training.

Is It Money Well Spent?
Now that we’ve reviewed the basics, let’s look at the single most important subject related to training and development: your bottom line. Should you spend money to create an Internet-based training program for your employees? Does the return justify your investment?

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An increasing number of companies are responding in the affirmative. It makes good business sense because the best way to achieve your company goals and strategies is with a team of employees motivated and empowered by the confidence gained through effective training and development programs.

Our experience at CARSTAR is echoed by a recent study conducted by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD). The results of the study indicate a direct relationship between investing in employee training and company performance. The ASTD study looked at the average annual training budgets of more than 500 publicly traded firms headquartered in the United States. The results were compelling. Companies investing in employee training and development programs outpace their competition by more than 45 percent. Companies that don’t allocate budget dollars for internal training underperform their competition by 22 percent.

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You can expect to see consolidators and multiple stores develop their own system first. The high costs may make training for individual shops prohibitive, but you can expect to see more training of a generic nature on the horizon.

Clearly, online training is a complex topic. It requires a significant commitment – including funds, staff resources and company-wide support – to become a truly rewarding tool. However, with increasing competition for both employees and customers, Internet-based training will become as essential to our industry as crash books were in the early days.

Writer Lirel Holt is founder and vice chairman of the board for CARSTAR. Since founding CARSTAR in 1989, Holt has focused on franchise development and education/training programs for the collision repair network.

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Online Training Available to Repairers

Two companies come to mind when I think of online training available to repairers: the Coordinating Committee on Automotive Repair (CCAR) and Mentors at Work. I have experience with CCAR, a not-for-profit company providing online environmental training and information for the collision industry. The U.S. EPA has specifically reviewed and approved CCAR’s online training and testing program. Shops will be able to train, test and then market a “seal of approval” as a committed “green” shop – all through online training. CCAR’s upcoming online training will cost approximately $250 for two years of shop certification.

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Another company, Mentors at Work, uses Internet-based training to help collision shops bring in and rapidly implement apprentices to the shop. The system trains the owner or general manager, the mentor and the apprentice. Everyone knows their role and is tested along the way. Mentors At Work training online is $895 for their Apprenticing modules.

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