The Next Generation: Difficulties Shop Owners have Recruiting New Blood into the Industry - BodyShop Business
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The Next Generation: Difficulties Shop Owners have Recruiting New Blood into the Industry

The economy of our great nation has been strong enough of late that young folks who have the desire to succeed and become proficient at something can choose many career routes to follow. Unfortunately for us, repairing damaged vehicles doesn’t seem to be at the top of their wish lists. Computers, sales, various unionized trades … these choices rate higher than our industry. Just look at attendance at various vo-tech schools. More class space is allocated to other career choices, and more students attend classes for other career choices than they do for autobody repair.

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With the difficulty shop owners have recruiting new blood into the industry, it might be a good idea to explore the minds of future repair techs to get a feel for why they decided to join the ranks of collision technicians. After all, if we can better understand their thoughts, expectations and motivations, we can better attract more of them, right? Right. Well … hopefully anyway. With this in mind, I went to a local vocational technical school and talked with a few students who’ve shown an interest in learning our trade.

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Let’s face it, we can’t afford to lose potential profit-generating technicians. But maybe if we knew what potential technicians were thinking, we could encourage and guide them into becoming our next generation of techs.

Step One: Finding a School

I began my quest by locating a reputable vocational technical school that offered courses in body repair. Since I live in Philadelphia, the logical choice was Pennco Tech. In business since 1961, it has two facilities in our region; I chose the one in Bristol, Pa. (The other one is in Blackwood, N.J.) Pennco Tech has a total of 300 enrolled students, with 25 to 30 registered for the body repair program, and the staff at Pennco Tech is proud of their 86 to 87 percent placement rate to area shops.

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Step Two: Student Interviews

The five students I interviewed ranged in age from 18 to 30. Most of them had finished high school, some were attending Pennco Tech during the day and others were taking night classes. Of the five, four were men and one was a woman. I asked all of them the same questions, and the only stipulation I gave them was to be honest.

The students:

• Hoang Tran, age 18. Tran recently graduated high school and began attending Pennco Tech. When asked if he planned to make a career of collision repair or if he’s just trying to get exposure to the field, he says: "Half and half. If the career of collision repair isn’t working out, I’ll just look for a new career."

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• Anthony DiNapoli, age 20. When asked what exposure he had to body work prior to Pennco Tech, he says: "I’ve been restoring cars with my dad since I was five. It really helped me in the field."

• Stephen Deluca, age 22. What specifically attracted him to the repair industry? "There are always cars to be fixed," he says.

• Lynette Barrett, age 27. What exposure did she have to collision repair prior to Pennco? "My brothers, cousins, ex-husband and father were body and paint men — also mechanics," says Barrett. "My father’s work greatly affected me. I want to be as good as him, but no one comes close!"

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• Wallace Shuttleworth, age 30. When asked what attracted him to the field, he says: "I find autobody repair a challenging field. No two jobs are the same. You get a sense of satisfaction when a job is done well."

Note: What follows is seven of the 14 questions I asked the students. The remaining seven questions will run in the July issue of BodyShop Business.


Question No. 1

Have you had any other type of training — such as in high school — and if you have, what did you think of it?

Only Shuttleworth had some prior training. He attended a public school with a vo-tech program in Philadelphia and said it was a "poor school with little training." "They need to update the school to [keep up with] modern times," he says.

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How about Pennco Tech? "The experience was OK," Shuttleworth says, explaining that he was disappointed Pennco didn’t give him "any hands-on experience with door-skin replacement — even though it was promised." (In Pennco’s defense, I have to say that Shuttleworth was attending an accelerated evening program, and the Pennco Tech catalog does state that, "though the same amount of theory is taught as in the day program, because of more limited practice time on vehicles, the graduate generally will require more on-the-job application time under the supervision of a senior technician.")

What I think about their answers: It’s interesting that only one out of five had high school vo-tech experience, that two had been exposed to the industry at a young age and that the remaining two were simply exploring the possibility of joining our industry. To me, this means 60 percent (three out of five) of my interviewees had already been bitten by the bodyman bug, whereas the other two are getting a feel for the repair field to see if it’s for them. These last two are important to us as an industry because it’s their first encounter with collision repair, and how they react could influence other potential candidates to pursue — or not pursue — collision repair as a career.

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Mike Cestero, Pennco Tech’s education consultant, is working hard to make that first encounter a positive one: He visits schools and explains the process of collision repair, hoping to encourage an interest in the field. While his vigilance has increased the enrollment in the collision repair department, he’s just one man. We all need to do more to make our industry more visible and attractive. Like what? Shop owners could visit schools on career days, perhaps donate equipment to schools or even get their trade organizations involved in advertising the positive aspects of our trade.

Question No. 2

What do you think an average bodyman makes in a week and in a year, and what do you think a good bodyman is worth?

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— Tran: "I have no idea."

— DiNapoli: "Between $350 and $400 a week."

— Deluca: "$300 to $400 a week. $15,000 to $16,000 a year. I think a good bodyman is worth at least $35,000 a year."

— Barrett: "It will always be different depending on the type of business you get during the week or year. I say $700 to $750 after taxes."

— Shuttleworth: "$500 to $600 a week."

What I think about their answers: I get a distinct feeling that some of these students expect to make good money upon graduation. In my experience, however, entry-level employees make only a bit over minimum wage. Will these students become discouraged and change careers once they enter the real world? Some of them may. On the other hand, one of these students got a job while attending night classes and was given $8 an hour to start. Was he discouraged by the pay? No. In fact, he was just glad to get hired; many shops today want employees with experience and are afraid to hire newcomers because they typically stay long enough to get some experience under their belts and then take that talent to another shop. While this is a problem for shop owners, it also makes it difficult for students who actually want to break into our industry.

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Low pay causes another dilemma: For shop owners who are willing to hire students, many students can’t afford to work for them. For example, Gerry Bosak, a Minnesota shop owner, told me he has a tough time attracting students. One potential candidate was making $12 an hour working part time at a liquor store while attending classes and said he’d stay at the liquor store until something better came along.

What’s the solution to this dilemma? Perhaps if our industry offered a pay scale or schedule that increased with years of experience and additional training completed, then maybe more students would consider our industry as a career.

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Question No. 3

What benefits do you think the average journeyman receives, and what benefits do you think journeymen deserve?

— Tran: "I don’t know, but they should have medical, retirement, vacation and free days."

— DiNapoli: "Medical."

— Deluca: "At least medical, vacation. They deserve medical, dental, 401k, profit sharing, vacation and sick leave."

— Barrett: "Most likely medical after six months."

— Shuttleworth: "They deserve medical, retirement, vacation and a 401k plan."

What I think about their answers: I’m not too surprised all five students said medical coverage. With all the hoopla in the news about spiraling hospital costs, I think most people are aware of the realities of getting sick or injured. I was also encouraged that three of them were thinking ahead and mentioned a retirement plan. I bet many, many bodymen out there today wish they had some type of 401k or retirement plan during their younger days. At least some of these students have an eye toward the future. Now if only shop owners would find a way to fund these benefits. Other industries have begun offering more benefits — and the results could be that they end up with the cream of the crop. If our industry doesn’t follow suit, all I can say is, I hope you like leftovers.

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Question No. 4

What’s the fairest way to be paid: by the hour, flat rate or commission?

— Tran: "[By] the hour because you know what you’re making and your pay could go up."

— DiNapoli: "Hourly."

— Deluca: "By the hour because everyone deserves a 40-hour week and an eight-hour day."

— Barrett: "I’ll say hourly because I expect $25 to $30 per hour. I expect to be the best and reliable."

— Shuttleworth: "By the hour — you can’t count on the work being there."

What I think about their answers: I find it interesting that all five wanted to be paid hourly. This must come from the fact that they’re taught to take their time and do the job right — no matter how long it takes. And, while this may be great in theory — and it’s a necessity when it comes to learning the trade — these students also need to be taught production skills as well as repair skills: working on something else while the first job is drying, pre-planning a repair procedure and so on. Heck, some current bodymen could use a refresher course in production skills, too.

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I also think it’s interesting that some of them said the 40 hours they’d normally be working would be guaranteed. I guess they don’t expect slowdowns and days off. To give these students a better grasp of the real world, it might be a good idea to bring in some journeymen who work on commission and flat rate to explain the potential for a great income based on their increased skills and faster production.

Question No. 5

How much money do you expect to invest in tools, and should the bodyman or the shop supply the tools?

— Tran: "Tools will cost a lot, and you should have your own tools."

— DiNapoli: "$2,000."

— Deluca: "Investment in tools — $2,000 to $3,000. The bodyman should supply mostly all the tools, but the shop should supply some."

— Barrett: "I expect to invest $10,000 to $25,000 since I’ll be owning my own tools. The bodyperson should supply them."

— Shuttleworth: "$10,000 to $12,000 over the career."

What I think about their answers: The tool question evoked a variety of responses, but all the students agreed that the worker should supply the tools. They seem to think they’re more valuable to an employer if they have their own tools and that it’s proof of their commitment to the trade. And I wouldn’t doubt that they’ve been told about the sanctity of the toolbox and about the reluctance of some repair techs to allow newcomers to use their tools. While this is still very valid at many shops, some shop owners have considered equipping each work bay in order to attract bodymen who don’t have all the necessary tools or just don’t want to invest in them. Tom Holmes brought up the idea at a NACE panel discussion in Las Vegas in December 1997: "What we’ve found," said Holmes, "is a tremendous labor pool out there of guys who are kind of mid-level technicians — guys who are hard workers and want to learn."

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Could this idea be the wave of the future and an inducement to join our ranks? Less money spent on tools means more money in the pockets of potential workers. It’s something to think about.

Question No. 6

Do you plan to become ASE certified? Is being certified a plus or a minus? Who pays for the

certification?

— Tran: "Yes, I plan to be ASE certified someday. I say it’s good to be ASE certified because if people see you’re ASE certified, they think you know what you’re doing."

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— DiNapoli: "Yes. And the technician should pay."

— Deluca: "Yes. It’s a plus because you can receive a higher pay rate with ASE [certification]. The technician should pay for the test if he fails, and the shop should pay if he passes."

— Barrett: "No, I don’t plan to become ASE certified — as of now. My opinion is neither plus or minus, and my reason is because, to me, it depends on the quality of your work. And, mostly, the shop should pay."

— Shuttleworth: "Yes, it’s a plus — it shows you take training seriously. The shop should pay but most of the time, it’s probably paid by the

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technician."

What I think about their answers: It’s good to hear the majority of the students thought certification was a positive idea and that it enhances the credibility of the industry. I still feel — and it seems the students agree — that set standards are important and that technicians today should know them and be able to be tested on them.

Question No. 7

If additional training is needed, who should pay for it?

— Tran: "50/50. The owners should pay half and the techs should pay half to make it easy."

— DiNapoli: "50/50."

— Deluca: "The shop or company. Both sides should agree on a minimum grade the person should pass with."

— Barrett: "The owner should pay. [As for being given a pay raise after the training] my suggestion is to talk to the owner before the test."

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— Shuttleworth: "I think that it should be paid by both sides."

What I think about their answers: I’m happy everyone saw the need to constantly upgrade their skills, and I’ll bet you — as a shop owner — like the fact that these students are willing to pay their fair share of the costs.

Barrett’s comment was interesting. Based on her response, she thinks that after receiving training, techs should then be able to receive an increase in pay based on their newfound knowledge — and recommends that the employee and the shop owner discuss any kind of pay raise before training and subsequent testing. To me, she’s saying an employee is more valuable after training. In reality, though, how many shop owners actually give a wage increase because their employees attended I-CAR or a manufacturer’s training class? Then again, maybe a pay scale or schedule based on experience and training would be a good attraction.

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Writer Henry Netter has worked in the collision repair industry for more than 36 years, is an ASE Master Certified Collision/Refinish Technician and works at Auto Tech Collision in Philadelphia as the senior repair technician.

Special thanks to Eric Jacobs, Pennco Tech’s admissions director, and Mike Cestero, senior education consultant, who helped make this article possible.

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