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Despite what the industry tries to convince itself of, the shortage of job applicants isn’t caused by a lack of qualified techs. It’s due to low wages, unsupportive shop owners and truly greener grass on the other side of the fence.
Is there really a shortage of collision repair technicians – or is the job applicant shortage getting so short it warrants a long overdue wage increase?
It was only a few years ago that a repairman would pack up his tools and leave a job – and within 48 hours, his replacement would arrive. These days, it seems increasingly common for a number of days, weeks or even months to pass by before a potential hire finds his way to your shop.
An increasing number of techs are leaving the industry for other trades, and many have already left. I personally know of several top-notch bodymen and painters who’ve taken up other trades, such as truck driving, drywall, electrical, heating and air conditioning installation and service, computer programming and repair, etc.
Most of these techs still enjoy working on cars, so they do the occasional weekend side job. But they have no interested in working full time in body shops.
Even though I’ve witnessed the departure of technicians from the industry, I still find it hard to believe there’s a true shortage of qualified technicians. What I – and many other techs – do wonder is why hasn’t the demand for a good technician increased the value of that tech? If techs are really that hard to find, why’s the industry still selling them short?
Many veteran techs remain at their collision repair jobs because they’re locked into a personal budget and can’t withstand a pay cut while they learn another trade. Young people, on the other hand, may not have kids to feed or a mortgage to pay and are willing to try collision repair for maybe a couple of years. If it doesn’t look promising, they figure they can try construction or truck driving – or anything else for that matter.
A healthy high school graduate, willing to work and eager to learn a trade, can get an equal or better starting wage in several other trades, so there’s not a lot of monetary motivation to enter the collision repair business these days. And as the pay scales for other trades continues to rise, so will the level of competition for collision techs and trainees.
As a shop owner or manager, this is the widening gap you’re up against.
A large number of collision techs these days openly admit they’d immediately switch careers if they could make the same or more money in that new field. Why? By switching careers, most feel they’d stand a better chance of their pay increasing along with the cost of living. And with morale at such a low level throughout the collision industry, shop owners and managers will only continue to experience difficulty in recruiting and/or retaining new techs.
After six months to a year in a body shop, many trainees often begin to wonder what they’ve gotten themselves into. When young people realize the amount of time and physical labor involved in learning collision repair, many consider other trades.
Here’s another factor: When young, potential collision techs don’t see a secure future in collision repair, they pursue another career. As if that weren’t enough, young techs don’t foresee security in this industry with so many concessions and free procedures being given to the insurance industry. Young collision techs see a future where their paychecks and their procedures are controlled by an outside entity. It’s a big reason so many potential recruits are hesitant to make collision repair a permanent career.
The Real Reason
Even with all that in mind, I still wonder if there’s really a shortage of qualified technicians. I think if a shortage really existed, then current techs wouldn’t still be working for 1980’s wages and wouldn’t have to put up such a fight to get proper payment for the procedures they perform.
Technicians shouldn’t have to fight shops for proper compensation. But these days, only a very small percentage of the industry is willing to stand up to the insurance industry so techs get paid for all they do to bring a vehicle back to pre-accident condition.
Because so few shop owners and managers are willing to go to bat for their techs, many techs are looking for and finding other ways to make a living. (Perhaps this would be a good time to sit and think about your batting record.)
How can you expect technicians to want to do something if they have to fight to get paid for it? Yet most techs who don’t put up a fight won’t get paid for a lot of procedures necessary to properly complete a repair. Apparently, many shop owners don’t think it’s worth the trouble for a tech to make an extra $50 to $100 per repair. It’s partly because of this that departing collision techs continue to outnumber entry-level collision techs year after year.
To make matters worse, a lot of bodymen – more than ever before -are cutting corners in the repair process. But since this allows them to churn out such large volumes of work, many shop owners and managers overlook the flaws in these rushed repairs. What it boils down to is that techs are finding it easier to cut corners than to get properly compensated.
In my opinion, the insurance industry has placed top priority on saving money anywhere they can, no matter how they have to go about doing it. This “save money at all costs” mentality has been shoved down the collision industry’s throat for so many years now that a large portion of the industry is run like a branch of the insurance industry.
Collision shop owners are training their office personnel to do everything according to insurance company guidelines. Too often, techs are being told, “We can’t charge for that.” And the only explanation is, “They just won’t pay for it,” or “That’s just the way it is.” How would you feel if that were the reasoning you got? Something has to change, and it has to begin with the shop owner.
Just as often, techs who complain about the free procedures they’re expected to perform are called crybabies, and techs who absolutely refuse to work for free are said to have attitude problems. When shop owners and managers criticize the techs who stand up for themselves, they send a clear message to new recruits that free work is in their future. How can the collision industry expect to find and retain new recruits when so many veterans are disgruntled about their pay and working conditions?
Who’s to Blame?
With a collision tech’s average wage frozen at the same level for so many years, can you really blame the truck driving, drywalling former collision techs who’ve resorted to only repairing small fender benders on weekends? After all, people survive by adapting and adjusting to each situation as it arises. If a bodyman can make a few changes and still make money doing what he’s good at, then he can become the bodyman you’ll find working on cars in his garage to pay for his house.
Regardless of what people say about money, it’s necessary in society and it’s still the primary motivator of the working class. Many people – and most techs – will seek employment in the best paying, least stressful jobs they can find.
Maybe shops are experiencing a shortage of qualified applicants, but there are plenty of qualified technicians out there. Sure, there may be more openings in body shops these days, and those openings may stay open a little longer before the shop owner finds and hires a suitable replacement. But I think that’s because a lot of qualified, former collision techs are now making a better living at their new jobs and are unwilling to get their tools out of storage.
Nope. There’s no shortage of collision techs. Only a shortage of “yes” men.
Writer Paul Bailey, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, has been a collision repairman for 17 years and is an avid photographer and writer who maintains a consumer-awareness Web page in his spare time. He resides in Florida with his wife, Cathy.