If you think education is expensive, try ignorance. Nowhere is that more true than in collision repair where change is a near constant and the materials, tools and technologies are evolving at a lightning pace.
Many in the industry claim techs are vastly under-trained, especially considering the rocket ships rolling off assembly lines today. But shop margins have been severely eroded, and many owners say they can’t afford training.
There seem to be two philosophies in the body shop business when it comes to training. One school of thought invests a lot of time and money in classes to keep current. The other school downplays continuing education, preferring to hire techs who already have certifications.
People who are not doing training will fall behind and be left behind, says John Cole, owner of Cole’s Collision Centers based in Albany with four locations in upstate New York.
“Training is a necessary component of any business, whether you’re fixing computers or cars,” Cole says. “How can you call yourself a professional repairer if you’re not up to date?”
Adds Rob Alexander, body shop manager for Brown Body & Paint Centre, Toledo, Ohio, “Fixing a car becomes trial-and-error if you’re not properly trained. We’re really big on training.”
While Alexander can’t point to any extra sales as a result of training certifications, he does say it’s a differentiator with insurance companies and some customers. He points to the new steels, processing, welding, bonding, foams and plastics used in today’s cars and trucks. Restraint systems seem to change by the model year. Admittedly, Alexander is sold on training – for a while, he was a local I-CAR chairman, and his production manager today holds that position. Yet even he has problems keeping the shop up to date.
“We’re in a big time of change. Unfortunately, a lot of our industry does not recognize it,” says Jeff Peevy, senior director of field operations and segment development for I-CAR.
Adds Craig J. Camacho, marketing director for Keenan Auto Body Inc., in Clifton Heights, Pa., an MSO that has a dozen locations in the greater Philadelphia area, “A trained tech is an efficient tech.” They’re a certified aluminum repair center and have approvals from a host of organizations and companies including I-CAR, ASE, 3M, Cromax Pro, NABC and DuPont.
“We pay for ongoing I-CAR training, ASE training and whatever else may be available in that person’s position,” Camacho says. Their commitment to trained techs goes so far that they created a non–paid internship called C.R.O.P. (Collision Repair Opportunity Program). C.R.O.P allows Keenan to reach out to technicians prior to graduating from technical high schools and vocational schools and provides a nine-month, hands-on training program. The tech needs to fulfill requirements throughout different stages of the course in order to graduate. Although the students are not required to work at a Keenan facility post-graduation, Keenan typically offers them full-time employment.
It’s not just the industry giants that see the need for training. Matt Penney, who runs Penney’s Auto Body at two locations in Garrettsville and Ravenna, Ohio, says they always invest in at least two hours of training for each employee each year.
“We like to spread it around,” Penney says, speaking of both the class subjects and the people involved. That keeps everyone up to date.
Penney himself has completed more than 80 hours of training in the past two decades. “Otherwise, you’d be taking a lot of chances when you put a car back together,” he says.
It starts the moment the vehicle appears at the shop door. “Knowing the scope of damage and writing proper estimates on vehicles will impact the bottom line. You need to look at proper training as an investment in your business. It’s not just a budget item,” says Jon McCreath, president, Vale Training Solutions, Arlington, Texas.
To write good estimates requires knowledge of new materials and new systems. “You are never going to get away from supplemental and hidden damage,” McCreath says.
Says Keenan’s Camacho, “Our employees feel empowered by the training that is made available
Keenan requires all shops to attain I-CAR Gold status. “With that, our techs have to meet certain education requirements individually, including I-CAR Platinum. Our A.R.C. (Aluminum Repair Center) technicians are required to stay current with the UHSS technologies that are constantly changing.”
Adds I-CAR’s Peevy, “The days of getting by without ongoing training are over. Training – and more important, knowledge – is the key to surviving. I honestly see training, more importantly knowledge, as the way to survive and more importantly thrive. The shops that continue to see training as simply a requirement for a recognition program or to be on a DRP will not survive. Recent research (see sidebar at end of this story: “Getting the Most ROI for Your Training Bucks”) proves that even if a shop sends techs to classes but fails to embrace the experience as an opportunity to learn and apply, they see only small gains. Shops embracing training as an opportunity to gain knowledge, share it and apply it see amazing results over their fellow shops.”
“While there still are some smaller shops that depend on the certifications that their new hires bring with them as their only means of being certified, the majority of larger shops with DRP contracts and MSOs have no real choice and end up biting the bullet to provide ongoing training for their techs,” Camacho says. That’s because the pool of vehicles untrained techs will be able to work on will grow smaller each passing year until they close their doors.
“When a shop fails to stay abreast of changes in technology, they fall further and further behind,” Peevy says.
Besides the risk of a bad repair and increasing liability of the shop and technician, there is the issue of CSI and cycle time. If a shop focuses on improving cycle time, for example, but then fails to keep up with new technology, the cycle time the shop was once proud of will increase more and more over time, he says.
“It is your responsibility as a business owner to stay up on technology,” Cole states.
The economy has been weak, and insurance companies are squeezing nickels. That means body shops are hard-pressed to keep up with training.
“We’ve had to cut back a little bit,” Alexander says. The shop achieved I-CAR Gold status for its 12 technicians. It also is Blue Shield certified and BASF certified. “It was an achievement to get that many people trained for I-CAR. But as the criteria for Gold Class kept changing, we lapsed a bit.”
Part of the problem was finding classes close to Toledo. Detroit, about an hour away, has classes, but Columbus and Cleveland are a couple of hours drive and that gets expensive. As a GM shop, they have the advantage of GM rolling its training into I-CAR. Still, it has been tough to keep up, says Alexander.
In the Budget?
Training at Keenan is a fixed budget item.
“Budgeting includes calculating education requirements for each shop based on the amount of employees who need the training, and that amount of money is included in each shop’s budget for the year,” Camacho explains.
At Brown Body, there also is a budget for training; however, Alexander judges each course on its merits. “I do what I need to do. We evaluate each course to see if it will be worthwhile. I want to be sure that we will get some benefit out of it.”
Right now, two dozen I-CAR coupons that Alexander needs to appropriate out to techs who need training sit on his desk. They were paid for at the beginning of the year and will be used shortly.
As a dealership, the operation is proactive regarding training in all of its departments. For the right class, the money is there.
Cole knows some shop owners who have cut back on training. “That’s their problem,” he says, dismissing the idea. “I’m a business owner. The decisions that steer my business and cause my success are mine alone. Eventually, they’ll lose data for updating their shop and will fall behind.”
Keenan uses ALLDATA along with VeriFacts and Motor procedures via CCC One. Cole uses I-CAR but also avails the shop of training with jobbers and paint suppliers who teach techs how to replicate special finishes, for example. “I want everyone on the same page,” Cole says.
Penney, too, is sold on I-CAR but would like to see more cross-training opportunities versus specialty classes – a good idea in a smaller operation.
Cole is big on ALLDATA repair sheets, especially when it comes to welds.
“You have to be sure you do it per the manufacturer’s specifications,” he says. He finds that, with such documentation in hand confirming Ford or Toyota’s specifications, the insurance company will pay for the specific repair 90 percent of the time. “The other 10 percent, they’ll write what they write,” he says.
One way to keep up with new auto technologies is to use new learning technologies like online courses.
Alexander says he’s looking into computer-based training modules to avoid the need for extensive (and expensive) travel.
Cole is big on online training, too. He notes that I-CAR has online training, and most OEs offer free modules for repair techs.
Online and classroom training each have advantages, Cole says. Some techs learn better in a classroom with a teacher guiding them, while others prefer the computer where they can go study a topic over and over until they get it right without feeling embarrassed.
“There is some advantage to being able to send a seam seal around a classroom and let the techs feel it,” Cole counters.
On the other hand, it’s convenient for technicians to work on the computer in lulls, at night or at home at their own speed.
No matter which route is taken, “Progressive training is better than none at all,” Cole states.
Sharing knowledge around the shop works, too. Shop owners themselves need to be aware of the latest repair technologies and trends.
“Once the owner knows, he or she can then pass it down to his or her staff fixing the vehicles,” Camacho says. “We find that reading trade publications, utilizing third-party quality audits, attending industry events and communicating with fellow owners/ operators is a very effective way to find the latest information to stay current.”
Adds Dunn, “Independent shop owners are better off to spend their money on training than to whine because they don’t have the expertise to fix a car.”
He says the A shops will continue to invest and profit from training. B shops will get training when regularly confronted with jobs they cannot fix. C shops will syphon off whatever business is left.
To be sure their techs can handle welding advanced metals like high strength steel and aluminum, Keenan looks to third-party verifying of quality.
“Providers of OE information are also good sources for up-to-date information,” Camacho says, noting that shops need to ensure that their equipment can handle the repair properly and also must provide their techs with the latest information available. “Ultra-high strength steel vehicles require a separate blueprint of repair procedures.”
Including the specified equipment and an area that’s conducive to aluminum repair is an additional investment. Keenan has invested in these technologies by purchasing the required equipment and training to be both Mercedes-Benz Certified and BMW Factory Authorized.
Cole is another shop owner who’s big on internal training. He flat-out states, “Most of the people I hire from competitors suck. I end up firing them.” His advice? “Pick the player, not the position.”
He says he would rather hire a good person with a great attitude and invest in training them than hire someone else’s mistake.
Peevy could be the auto industry’s equivalent of the Greeks’ Cassandra – speaking the truth but not believed by many. He has predicted a tsunami of change in the industry ever since the CAFE standards were implemented. That tidal wave now is happening. OEMs, collectively, are on a pace to institute 80 vehicle changes every model year. And it’s not just on high-end exotic vehicles.
“We’re beginning to see sophisticated technology in mainstream, high-volume vehicles,” Peevy says. “Ironically, a tech must have sound basics in order to fully understand many of the newer concepts in
vehicle designs and materials we’re about to see. Without the foundation of sound basics, the new stuff can be misunderstood or just not fully understood and this could lead to less-than-desirable consequences.”
The result is that more shops are becoming aligned with the idea, and today there are more shops
Gold Class or pursuing Gold Class than in the history of the program, Peevy says.
Penney likes what I-CAR provides. However, he sees OEM classes taking over. “The trend is toward OEM certification,” Penney says. He says he suspects the manufacturers do not give the aftermarket schools all of the information they might require. “So far, I-CAR has kept up, but certain lines are becoming too specialized,” he continues.
Dunn agrees that it seems OEs sometimes are slow to share technology. However, he says that perception might be due, in part, to the speed of information change in today’s body business. “We are made aware of changes more quickly. So, it seems like it takes longer,” he says.
Dunn says the unrecognized force in all of his is the millions of consumers. “All of the posturing and chest pounding by so-called leaders in the industry does not mean a lot,” he says. “But those millions of consumers have a lot of clout.”
Forgotten in the situation, he adds, is the OE’s obligation to the customers who buy the vehicles and who simply expect their vehicles to come back as good as new.
McCreath says he has not found OEMs withholding information. All of Vale’s instructors are I-CAR certified and he feels they get the latest information in those classes.
Camacho says he believes OEMs could make it easier on shops by providing correct repair standards free of charge for their vehicles to shops that fix them. The website www.oemonestop.com has at least consolidated a lot of the information and reduced the time searching around.
Training can help you in court, too. There is always the growing risk of liability.
“There is little doubt increased liability will grow as the momentum of change increases. No one wants to be brought into court to explain how their ‘professional business’ knew how to properly repair the vehicle in question, when they can provide no evidence of ongoing technician training,” Peevy warns. “No matter how you look at it, the days of getting by without ongoing training are over.”
Camacho notes that, without training, it will be increasingly more difficult to compete. “From a safety standpoint, the shop inherits the risk of being sued. The lack of training has always been a liability. This will be more prevalent as vehicle technologies continue to evolve and shops that are sued will be in jeopardy of losing their business license or business in general.
“We’re hoping that the insurance companies would hold shops to a standard to expect proper repairs rather than assume a proper repair and to compensate the shops that have made the investment in equipment and employee training via hourly rates.”
Welding is a great example of increased risks. Peevy asked two simple questions during CIC in Boston: Do you believe poor welds on structural repairs compromise structural integrity? Do you believe compromised structural integrity decreases occupant safety?
“Can you imagine being a shop owner in a trial being asked these questions and having no evidence you had made any effort to ensure your shop’s welds were made correctly?” Peevy asks. “If a shop can’t or won’t invest in the necessary infrastructure, equipment and training, then the amount of work they’re qualified to work on will continue to decrease rapidly.”
Everyone needs training. “A tech’s tenure has no real bearing on their training,” Camacho says.
“The only thing worse than to invest in your people and have them leave is not to invest in your people and have them stay,” quips Dunn. Masters School emphasizes leadership and management, and Dunn says it is important for a shop owner to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to new technologies.
At his own shop, Dunn emphasizes its own training programs.
Where to Start
“Ultimately, older vehicles won’t be fixed…they will be totaled out,” McCreath says. With them will go a shop’s future.
“You can’t ignore the new technology. Investing in training eventually will help the bottom line and drive business your way in the DRP market,” McCreath says. Noting the squeeze on shops, he adds, “You may get beaten up, but it is steady business.”
How can a shop owner ensure that techs can handle welding high-strength steel and aluminum? Peevy says he would start with getting everyone in an operation that welds to participate in and successfully pass something like the I-CAR Welding Qualification Tests. The in-shop events have a shop’s techs welding on the shop’s own equipment, driven by the shop’s electrical infrastructure. Pass the test, and an owner can have a level of confidence in the shop and its equipment…and security that the techs have what it takes to make proper welds.
Those tests will now have to be updated, at a minimum every three to five years, just to stay relevant. Yes, it will cost money. However, ignorance will prove to be even more costly.
Getting the Most ROI for Your Training Bucks
Given the pace of change – 240 industry-wide changes in vehicle construction between 2010 and 2014, including new composites and electronics – training is the future of the industry. Just as certain is that training is expensive and getting more so. How can a shop maximize its ROI?
“We must first change the way we as an industry even think about the subject of training,” says I-CAR’s Jeff Peevy.
First, he says, the industry must stop thinking of training as a requirement but as a solution to business challenges. “Think of ‘knowledge’ as opposed to just sending someone to a class, and then work on changing the culture within your operation.”
Look for Peevy to speak at a number of industry events this fall on the concept of the “Organizational Culture of Learning” and how a collision repair facility can begin this journey of future success. “The bottom line,” he says, “is a repair facility needs to think of knowledge as something to go out and harvest and then bring back and share within the whole operation.”
KPI (key performance indicator) statistics show it works. Shops that simply sent techs to class saw a 3.6 percent improvement in a vital KPI like cycle time. The culture-focused shops – those that shared the learning around the shop – saw a 28.9 percent improvement. That’s a 25 percent return on a simple management change.
The key is not to focus on “things,” but on knowledge-sharing.
Curt Harler is a Cleveland-based freelancer specializing in the auto, technology and environmental areas. He can be reached at [email protected].