“Leave your funk at the door.”
Motivational speaker Steve Beck of Beck Seminars said these words while pointing to the stairs of the stage as an imaginary door and walked up and down them, pantomiming an exasperated person morphing into a happy one as soon as he got to the top step.
This message about “How to Have a Great Day Every Day” resonated with the fifth iteration of the HD Repair Forum — over 250 strong at the historical Hilton in Ft. Worth, Texas, April 18-19, 2023. These heavy-duty collision repair attendees had reason to be in a funk. Years in a pandemic wreaked havoc on business and caused immense supply-chain disruptions. Subsequent inflation caused the price of materials and parts to shoot up. Electronic systems and electric vehicles (EVs) are creeping into the market and setting mechanically minded repairers on edge. Add to that the ever-present challenge of finding techs — especially for diesel vehicles — and the fact that there aren’t many OEM repair procedures available for heavy-duty collisions repairers to follow, and you have a recipe for perpetual funk.
Yet the HD Repair Forum was an opportunity to “leave your funk at the door,” because people from across the continent came together to network, learn and share their concerns with one another. Here were my takeaways from the forum.
Collision Industry Updates
One of the pain points of the heavy-duty collision industry is the lack of industry data available. After the opening keynote address on Tuesday morning, Jennifer King from PPG Industries kicked our education off with a presentation that broke down collisions statistics in the different areas of the U.S. and Canada. Overall, she noted, business is still below 2019 levels, but it has recovered over the last couple of years.
In contrast, the severity costs associated with collisions have skyrocketed since the pandemic. King notes that the average change year-over-year (YOY) pre-2021 was a 5% increase. However, in 2021, there was a 14% increase and, in 2022, a 20% increase. In addition, while the cost of parts has gone up, the cost of labor has gone down.
Tim Meeker from Navistar then gave an update on market trends and its influences on parts. According to Meeker, the cost of steel, aluminum, plastics and resin has come down from their recent highs at varying levels, although commodities in general are still 1.5% more expensive than last year. Though the prices have bounced around, the trend is starting to flatten out. However, citing a report from the Federal Open Market Committee in November 2022, Meeker said that it might not be until 2025 that we see inflation return to the approximately 2% level.
There is some good news to be had, though. Meeker reports that service part past due trends are down 36% YOY. Manufacturers feel better now about having redundancy and getting materials out of multiple regions, including North America. While chips and hi-tech parts are still an issue, most suppliers have fallen back into a normal rhythm. In fact, he noted, 81% of past dues are caused by only 5% of all suppliers.
Meeker also noted that in response to the Biden Administration’s recently proposed emissions regulations for all 2027 model year vehicles and beyond, there is a sense of optimism with OEs. OEMs are currently in discussions with government officials to outline more reasonable regulations and are confident as a result that they are already meeting many of these requirements. As such, not much of their current technology would have to change in to meet the standards.
Specific Heavy-Duty Industry Needs
One of the main reasons for the HD Repair Forum is to bring awareness to the needs of heavy-duty collision repairers. As such, several presentations touched on a multitude of different topics in this umbrella category.
For instance, Tim Barnes with NFI Parts discussed how small, private-owned fleets of motorcoaches need the help of independent repair shops, since there are no dealerships to service these vehicles. Chris Bishop with ISUZU Commercial Truck of America gave an update on repair resources and information for the trucking brand. John Helterbrand with Collision Engineering discussed the skills sets necessary to the collision workforce and what expectations shops should have of new techs based on what they’re learning in school and how shop owners can better retain their new techs.
The forum also featured two panels: one discussing the need for OEM repair procedures (featuring members of the HP Repair Forum advisory board) and another highlighting best practices from insurers to make the claims process more efficient. In fact, the HD Repair Forum is creating a document that will live on its website that denotes collision repair facility best practices and responsibilities regarding claims handling and photo requirements.
Electronic Systems and EVs
Everywhere you turn, EVs are being touted in the news as the next great thing. While they’re not nearly as plentiful as internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles on the roads just yet and few in the HD Repair Forum have ever worked on an EV, the resounding message was that they will soon be rolling into shops. Niel Speetjens from I-CAR delivered some dire warnings in his presentation about proper handling procedures of EVs. The key takeaway: disconnect the high-voltage battery, lest it start a chemical fire. (Such fires cannot be put out; they can only be managed by the fire department but must burn through all their fuel, which can take up to an hour and a half in an EV if not sprayed down.)
On the ADAS side, Jim Barber from Bendix Commercial Vehicle Systems LLC discussed how to access and repair evolving electronic systems. He stressed that next year, all new Class 4 to 6 vehicles are going to be equipped with ADAS, so if you’re turning away work because of those systems now, that will soon no longer be an option.
The Tech Shortage
While the entire forum met together for the morning sections, the afternoons separated us into breakout sessions. I attended sessions primarily focusing on leadership, finding technician talent and mentoring them, which I found to be great opportunities to challenge one’s thinking.
For instance, in the session, “Dealing with the Shortage of Qualified Technicians,” George Arrantis with the ASE Education Foundation asked a thought-provoking question: Is there really a shortage of techs? The answer was not as clear-cut as it might have seemed. He noted that the number one cause of closing collision classes was low enrollment but that the number one cause of low enrollment was low pay in the industry.
Furthermore, one of the biggest problems affecting the perceived “tech shortage” was the expectations shop owners have of new techs. If you expect them to be productive on the first day, you’re going to be disappointed. In addition, many owners get frustrated with new techs because they don’t do things the way owners have traditionally done them. Arrantis argued that just because they learned a different methodology, that doesn’t make it worse than an owner’s method.
Arrantis also challenged owners to look at their shop cultures and determine their turnover rates. Sometimes your culture is part of the problem surrounding this “shortage.” If these situations apply to you, you might find yourself with retention problems:
- There’s no mentoring, or you are choosing the wrong mentors (i.e. your top techs). Mentors must both have a willingness to mentor and enjoy working in the industry.
- You don’t understand this new generation.
- Who dictates the culture in your shop? Could you see your kids/grandkids working there? If not, why would a new tech?
- You move students 300-plus miles away from home (hint: between the cost of living and being in an unfamiliar area surrounded by strangers, they’re most likely going to want to go back home soon).
- You don’t have a defined career path laid out.
Arrantis noted that another factor contributing to the perceived shortage is that education isn’t teaching what the industry needs. Education is a closed loop — without outside involvement from shops, it will keep teaching the same, outdated tactics. He noted that change begins in your own community, so get involved with local schools to make sure that students know who you are and what your business represents.
In a separate session on mentoring, Marc Brune with MentorMentee discussed the best practices for instituting mentoring at your shop. He also challenged shop owners to look for potential techs outside of career and technical education (CTE) programs, such as in related industries, service industries, exited or retired veterans and formerly incarcerated individuals (where appropriate).
All in all, the HD Repair Forum was a valuable opportunity to keep abreast of the trends impacting medium- and heavy-duty collisions repairers. If you haven’t attended before, consider going next year, and stay tuned for more information on the 2024 HD Repair Forum.
For more information, visit hdrepairforum.com.