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Friday, 08 February 2019 17:37

Does the Collision Industry Have a Crisis of Opportunity?

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Ever since the earliest days of “motoring,” when vehicle owners had to depend on blacksmiths, plumbers, bicycle mechanics and other artisans of the day to repair a broken spring or a crumpled fender, there has been a cry about the shortage of qualified technicians that is still heard today.

 

But Josh Carlisle, auto collision instructor for the Cape Girardeau Career and Technology Center in Cape Girardeau, MO, has a slightly different perspective. He claims the current situation is more of a crisis or shortage of opportunity, rather than a shortage of people.

 

“The younger generation has little to no chance of breaking into the collision repair business,” said Carlisle.

 

His reasoning for the “crisis of opportunity” is two-fold:

 

1.) “Most shops are not interested in hand-holding new techs” said Carlisle. “They want people with five-plus years of experience. They want their new tech to hit the ground running. The new techs can’t gain any experience if they can’t get hired in the first place.”

 

2.) “There is a crisis of opportunity because there is a crisis of pay plans,” he continued. “Most shops want to pay a new tech around $9 per hour. For a 48-hour week, that’s only around $23K per year. Meanwhile, the new tech might have $30K in student loans, plus they have to buy tools. It doesn’t pencil out.”

 

Based on this assumption, Autobody News went to several industry leaders and consultants to ask, “Do we really have a ‘crisis of opportunity'?”

 

Doug Irish, department chair of Collision Repair & Refinishing Technology at Fayetteville Technical Community College in Fayetteville, NC, said he thinks there may be a lack of opportunity at the local level for students and graduates just entering the collision industry workforce. New people may have to relocate to find the opportunity.

 

Irish said, “They may not find work in their own backyard. Right here in Fayetteville, we have three of the largest MSOs in the country. A new tech may find an opportunity with them, but it may be at one of their other locations. We had one student get a job offer on the West Coast. It took a lot of commitment to move.”


 

As for the crisis of hourly pay, Irish said, “I have not seen anyone lowballing new techs at $9 per hour in this market.”

 

When asked about the high end of the pay scale, Irish replied, “I’ve seen a graduate with an associate’s degree start at $75,000 per year. It wasn’t in this area, but the point is there is opportunity out there.

 

“It is true that some shop owners have no appetite for new techs. Their perception is that they have no time for mentoring people. They don’t want to be ‘babysitting’ the new guy. What we need to do as an industry is foster a ‘mentor mentality’ within each shop so we can grow people. The age-old act of ‘pirating’ people from other shops does not solve our problem.”

 

Brandon Eckenrode, director of development for the Collision Repair Education Foundation, said he feels there are certainly some shops that only want experienced techs. But plenty of work is available for basic techs too, and plenty of new people are going through training classes.

 

“The problem is---and any instructor will tell you this---out of a class of 20 people, there are maybe five who have shown some initiative and are willing to do the work,” he said. “The others are filling a seat. Auto shop tends to be a dumping ground in some schools when they don’t know what to do with a student.

 

“As for the $9 versus $15 per hour pay scale---that is an issue. Yes, a person with no experience can start at a higher rate in other professions. What I always look at is the potential. A person starting at a lower rate at a body shop can train, learn from mentors and be worth more and make more over time, whereas the person who started at $15 per hour could [stay at that] rate for the foreseeable future.”

 

Marc Gabbard is the president of GSR Quality Collision Repair in Yakima, WA, and administers a Facebook page called Collision Repair Technicians United.


 

He said, “I prefer the new guys. All three of my current guys came from the local high school voc-tech program. They were all green. For two of them, this was their first job. I've had great success with hiring green talent and training, and maybe that’s because I participate in an internship and mentoring program. I have hired several technicians directly out of that program.”

 

On the question of money, Kristen Felder, well-known industry icon and president of Collision Hub, said, “Young people today---not all, but many---have been led to believe they will make big money right out of tech school. The fact is: Most don’t. They have to pay their dues. And so many are set up for failure from the start.

 

“It’s not so much a shortage of people or even a crisis of opportunity. It’s much bigger than that---it’s a crisis of culture. It is something no Band-Aid will fix. There is no silver bullet. Our industry needs a change in culture, and it starts with the way most technicians are paid.

 

“Most techs today are paid on a commission basis. The more they hustle, the more work they put out, and the more money they make. This creates a number of problems, one of which is having no time or appetite to mentor new techs. In fact, we could live without tech schools if shops had a good mentoring program and a business model to support it. ABRA, Caliber and Fix Auto all have great programs that get a new person doing productive work in weeks, not months or years.

 

“Another issue is more societal. The WWII generation and baby boomers had a strong work ethic. They didn’t mind working hard. They didn’t mind hustling; in fact, they expected to. They were motivated to buy a new car, buy a house, buy a motorcycle and boat. The WWII generation is gone and baby boomers are retiring. Their [type] will not be seen again. Those replacing them, the millennials, aren’t driven by the same motivation. Many couldn’t care less about owning a car or house, let alone motorcycles and boats. They want a different quality of life and yet, the current business model used in collision shops is based on the hustle mentality of earlier generations. Today’s generation wants to work 9 to 5, and then move on to other things in their life. Their work does not define them. It just doesn’t work anymore for the Xbox and Google generation.


 

“The answer is a shop pay plan based on salary with a built-in training/mentoring component. If people are salaried, the shop owner can then better control costs and work more efficiently. If they then control other overhead and productions costs and work more efficiently, they are better able to afford training and mentoring.”

 

David Luehr, president and founder of Elite Body Shop Solutions, offered, “If a shop is only recruiting people with five-plus years of experience, it is convenient for the shop owner, but not necessarily the right way to do things. They might be missing out on some very talented people with less experience. Plus, those experienced people may have years of bad habits that have to be un-learned, whereas new people can be taught the right way of making repairs and learn that shop’s way of doing things. It is easier to adopt a culture from scratch rather than un-learn one and re-learn another.”

 

“On the question of money: Everyone has to eat, so a shop needs to set a pay schedule that is in line with the geographic area and type of work.

 

“One of my favorite sayings is, ‘If you want to attract more people to your business, make your business more attractive.’ The newspaper and online ads that shops use today to attract people are the same ads that were used 40 years ago: ‘Wanted: Busy Shop Needs Experienced Collision Tech – Must Have Own Tools – Inquire at…’ How we advertise makes a difference. We have to tell prospective technicians why our shop is a better place to work. The current generation is driven not by a ‘hard work’ ethic but by more intangible things. They want a career path. They want a diversified work model; they don’t want to be stuck doing the same job for an interminable amount of time.”


 

When asked if a shop’s labor rate affects its ability to afford to train and mentor a new tech, Luehr replied, ”Of course labor rates are important, but it doesn’t tell the whole story of profitability. It’s more about a shop’s efficiency. I know shops that charge $45 an hour and are doing well and shops on the West Coast with a labor rate of $100 per hour that are hurting. If your work is sloppy and you spend a lot of time re-doing jobs, or you are wasteful with materials and don’t keep your overhead costs under control, you won’t have any money for anything other than keeping your head above water.”

 

Bruce King, a former Massachusetts owner of five shops and current coach for Elite Body Shop Solutions, offered, “We used to hire detailers for $12 per hour and burned through a lot of people because not only was it a boring, repetitious job, but it didn’t pay well. We found a pizza shop down the street paying people $20 per hour just to deliver pizzas! Deliver pizzas! We then reassessed the job of detailer and how important it was. The body guys and painter may have done a great job on the repair, but if we deliver a dirty car to a customer, that’s all they see and it is how the shop is rated. So we increased the pay scale and also developed a career path for that position.

 

“I like hiring [millenials] because they are team-oriented; all they need is some training. One of the problems shops have is they hire techs as if they were independent contractors, and then they get angry when the tech starts acting like an independent contractor by coming and going as he pleases. It’s important that they know they are part of a team and what they do affects everyone else on the team. Each person has to do what is right for the team and for the mission. As a manager, this is what we have to get across. The problem is not the individual tech – it is how they are managed. Give the techs a mission and a path and set milestones.”


 

Jeff Peevy, long-time executive with I-CAR and current president of the Automotive Management Institute (AMi), has dealt with training collision techs for years. He realizes, perhaps better than anyone, that this is a multi-faceted issue.

 

“We need to look in the mirror and honestly face the reality that if we do not sincerely and effectively address this issue, we will have a crisis that will cripple our industry in the very near future,” he said. “We need a willingness to work together for the greater good and recognize our industry’s success is tied to everyone. Individual efforts, though commendable, will struggle without industry-wide support and acceptance.”

 

So … is there a “crisis of opportunity” as Josh Carlisle contends? It depends on the person with whom you discuss it, their perspective, and the degree to which the issue exists.

 

Peevy perhaps sums it up best: “Our industry has not organized itself well enough as a whole to be competitive against other trades. We lack the industry-accepted structure around apprenticeship programs. Being an industry of small businesses, we inherit the usual small business challenges associated with offering the level of benefits to be competitive.”

 

As of this writing, Peevy, who is also Collision Industry Conference chairman, vowed to bring up this issue at the next CIC meeting and make new-tech training and recruitment a priority for the industry.

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