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The number of quality entry-level techs graduating from vo-tech schools continues to slump. So what are you doing about it? As the saying goes, if you’re not a part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem.
Many shop owners and collision repair or refinish technicians who’ve been around a while started their careers by attending some kind of vocational school. These days, however, about 73 percent of entry-level people hired into our industry haven’t attended a vocational school.
What’s going on?
To answer that, consider the following:
Some high schools have collision repair training programs, which are good places to realize future potential for a mechanically apt individual but they really shouldn’t be the end of that person’s collision repair education. Why? Because most of these high school programs lack the level of technical accomplishment achieved at full colleges or vocational schools since students spend just one period a day in the programs.
Unfortunately, some of these high school programs have been used as dumping grounds for "undesirables" or "at risk" students. This is a problem because, during the past 20 years, our work has become more and more technical with the advent of the unibody automobile, safety restraint systems, automatic braking systems, on-board electronics … the list goes on.
At the same time, a similar scenario has been occurring at vocational schools: Most vocational schools are publicly funded with tax payers’ dollars (it should be noted that some are private institutes where students pay tuition). The problem is, some of these state-funded college and vocational programs have had a tendency in recent years to fill student vacancies with less-than-desirable people in order to receive state matching funds necessary to fund the program — making it tough to graduate a consistently high level of well-qualified entry-level technicians. This isn’t necessarily the school’s fault, but more the fact that our industry has a poor public image as a trade or career field. And it’s a serious problem. As an industry, we’re competing for a student population with the ever-growing, white-collar high-tech industries. And while many students may be willing to enter collision repair training, their parents are often reluctant for them to do so.
According to the I-CAR Education Foundation’s latest survey, there are about 210,000 collision repair technicians. Of those 210,000 technicians, about 20,000 of them left our industry during the last 12 months, while slightly less than 5,000 entry-level technicians were hired from vo-tech schools — leaving the balance of approximately 15,000 people to be hired from outside the industry (47 percent) or from the non-collision auto-related industry (26 percent). This is where that figure of 73 percent came from: About 73 percent of the entry-level people coming into our industry are undergoing on-the-job training in lieu of vocational training.
I don’t know about you, but this tells me there’s a vast gap in entry-level technicians that isn’t being filled by vocational-school graduates. Because I believe most of us would rather hire qualified entry-level technicians with tools than take someone off the street without tools and train him from the bottom up, the question is: What can we do about this shortage? How can we ensure qualified entry-level technicians will be around for us to hire?
The answer is unbelievably simple: Get involved.
Setting the Standard
According to the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF), an arm of ASE, there are 2,000 collision repair education programs nationwide. Of those 2,000 programs, only 195 of them are certified by NATEF.
To become certified, a vocational program must meet a group of standards set by industry experts regarding the collision repair field. And the curriculum and equipment requirements are stringent. This is good.
Once a program has achieved NATEF certification, the possibility of producing a quality end product — entry-level technicians — rises substantially. In its 15th year, NATEF also certifies other auto-related vocational education programs and has a total of 1,242 certified programs nationwide.
A curriculum that’s certified in all fields of collision repair must include Structural Analysis and Damage Repair, Non-Structural Analysis and Damage Repair, Mechanical and Electrical Components, Plastics and Adhesives, and Painting and Refinishing — for a total of 1,110 hours. Included within the 1,110 hours of instruction is a requirement for 100 hours of GMA (MIG) welding.
To find out if there’s a NATEF-certified collision repair program near your shop, check out the foundation’s Web site at www.natef org or call (703) 713-0100.
Do Something About It
What if you don’t have a NATEF-certified program near you? What can you do to improve the situation? Again, the answer is get involved! Contact your local vo-tech school and volunteer for the advisory board of that school; then convince them of the necessity of being NATEF certified.
Be advised, you may meet some resistance from the school staff. Why? Certification means work for them. In most cases, it will mean documenting and upgrading the program, it may mean the purchase or loan of necessary equipment, and it will also require a moderate administrative expense of $450. An evaluation team will then visit the school to evaluate its status.
Why volunteer for the advisory board? Because the advisory board of a vocational school’s collision repair program can be very influential regarding the direction a school program will go. A very good program that consistently graduates quality entry-level technicians will have a motivated and directed advisory board. A weak program that’s run as a hobby shop with the students customizing and working on their own cars while the instructor wiles away the hours talking to the pretty new tool-room clerk usually has a non-involved advisory board that seldom meets. When it does, it doesn’t discuss relevant issues.
I became involved with my local technical college through participation on the advisory board and was recruited by my PBE jobber. What I found was a hobby shop. One instructor was tenured and running his at-home shop via the telephone. The other instructor was new but had no direction from the advisory board nor help from the other instructor. The advisory board consisted of a PBE jobber, a metal technician, two shop owners, a paint manufacturer’s representative and a dealer body shop manager.
We didn’t know what the condition of the program was, but we were determined to find out. We divided tasks into four categories — estimating, metal straightening and filling, structural welding and painting — and we developed hands-on exercises to test the skill levels of the students and, in reality, the success of the program itself. We volunteered a day of our time and tested the program. Results were miserable, but knowledge is power. We then knew what had to be done.
We discovered the instructors needed the signature of the advisory board’s chairman to maintain their state teaching credentials. That signature was tied to the results of our next test, which we set to take place one year after the first test. We then visited the superintendent — who thought our tactics were a little heavy handed, but we held firm. We had full cooperation from the instructors’ supervisor, who was really interested in seeing the program change and improve. The results of the next test improved tremendously, and everyone — students, teachers, staff and advisory-board members— was pleased.
Now that we had a good program, we started the NATEF-certification process. The advisory board was solidly behind certification, and we were able to convince the staff of its importance, too.
I’m proud to say, the school became NATEF certified, and its autobody program became one of the premier collision repair programs in our state — from hobby shop to a respected, quality collision repair training facility. That’s the power of the advisory board when you get involved.
If Your Not a Part of the Solution …
With 2,000 collision repair training programs nationwide and 20,000 technicians leaving our industry in the past 12 months, the math seems simple. If each one of these programs generated only 10 entry-level technicians per year, our needs would be met. However, the programs are falling 75 percent short of demand. This is sad.
The solution to this quandary is industry involvement at the local vocational-school advisory-board level. Get involved; don’t wait to be asked. Ask the vocational school near you how you can become a member of the advisory board of its collision repair program. The staff will welcome you with open arms. Once you’re there, push for NATEF certification; it’s the proven program.
Our industry has provided us with a good living and opportunities that will carry us into the future — if we can solve the technician shortage we’re currently saddled with. It’s up to us; nobody else is going to do it for us. School programs are lagging far behind current needs due to lack of industry involvement from our end. The good news is, the problem can be solved if you choose to get involved and help solve it. The question is, what will you choose? To be part of the problem — or part of the solution?
Writer Michael J. West, a contributing editor to BodyShop Business, has been a shop owner for the past 25 years and is also a technician with 34 years of experience. His shop in Seattle, Wash., has attained the I-CAR Gold Class distinction and the ASE Blue Seal of Excellence.