But with the economy bouncing back to various degrees in different markets, and with shops struggling to continue boost productivity to remain competitive, smart operators are keeping their recruiting skills honed.
Here is a look at how some shop owners are working to ensure they are continuing to attract - or create - the industry's top new talent.
Thinking outside the box
Mike Anderson said he thinks too many people in the industry complain about the shortage of quality technicians, but too few are actually willing to do anything about it.
Anderson, president of the 40- employee Wagonwork Collision Center with two locations in Alexandria, Virginia, points to the difficulty the Washington Metropolitan Auto Body Association has had getting shops to participate in a program the association operates with GEICO Insurance. As part of the program, GEICO pays $3 of a shop apprentice's hourly wage for 40 hours a week for one year. GEICO is currently sponsoring three such apprentices in Washington, D.C., area shops each year.
"GEICO says, 'We're going to pay to have you hire an apprentice,' yet it can be like pulling teeth to get shops to participate," Anderson said. "I think we all want a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but the majority of us don't seem to want to invest any time and energy. I don't think there is a miracle cure for this or a magic wand we can wave. We just have to really want to invest some time into it."
Anderson said the growth of such cable television shows as "Monster Garage" is reigniting young people's interest in automotive careers. He said he's worked to capitalize on that interest by getting an insurer to donate a totaled vehicle as a recruiting tool for one of the six schools in which his company is involved. The school had the vehicle in its shop on a day when they were trying to recruit students into the program.
"We just got out the panel cutters and plasma cutters and things like that and just let the kids go to town," Anderson said. "It really generated some excitement."
He said some high school collision repair programs have been successful establishing parent "booster clubs" - similar to those organized for a school's sports or music programs - to help raise funds and ensure administration support for the programs.
But Anderson is also not one to limit his own shop's recruiting efforts to just local students and collision repair programs. He said police and fire departments often have people retiring in their early- or mid- 40s after 20 years on the force.
"They love cars, they're mature and they have supervisory skills," Anderson said. "We actually have two retired police officers working for us that are doing great. They're not looking to make tons of money because they have a [pension] income, and they don't necessarily need the benefits."
Similarly, those leaving the military post their resumes on searchable websites (such as the Army Career Alumni Program, www.acap.army.mil) that also enable employers to list job openings nationwide.
"And if you hire someone out of the military through this ACAP program, the military, as part of the GI Bill, will pay for them to take I-CAR classes, get ASE certification and things of that nature," Anderson said.
He's also successfully hired five overseas students through the Association for Inter-national Practical Training (www.aipt.org). Under immigration rules, the students can work in the U.S. only for 18 months, he said, but they may know others looking to come work in the industry from other countries which have a glut of technicians.
"I'm not trying to steer people away from recruiting from the local vocational programs," Anderson said. "That's probably where 80 percent of my employees come from. But I think we need to also think outside the box."
Tony Molla, vice president of communications for ASE, said no national television or advertising campaign would be as effective in recruiting new talent into this industry as face-to-face interaction with successful people in this industry.
"It's got to be a grass-roots effort," Molla said. "We won't convince people over a television set. You don't convince people with a newspaper article. You convince people one-on-one, talking to them about the value and benefits we offer as a career choice for their children."
But some shop owners have been discouraged by the lack of interest they have found when offering to speak at local schools about collision repair technician career opportunities.
Jeanne Silver, owner of Butterfield Bodyworks CARSTAR in Mundelein, Illinois, said she almost accidentally discovered one way around this problem. She said she has had no shortage of interest in having her speak to students about "entrepreneurship" and "small business ownership." She uses that as the hook to make presentations in which she also talks about specific careers in the collision repair industry.
Molla said shop owners are also fooling themselves if they think they're likely to capture the top collision repair students that a school is producing if they're not actively helping that school - because other shops in their market likely are. Invite some of the school's students in for a tour, to learn on a particular piece of equipment or to job shadow, Molla suggests. Help the school work with vendors to get the equipment they need. Sponsor an instructor's trip to NACE (ASA affiliates may be able to get an instructor's registration fee waived). Help the program get the I-CAR curriculum or earn NATEF certification to help it maintain credibility with administration. And join the advisory program.
"That's a small thing, but something everyone can do," Molla said, adding that advisory committee members are often able to recruit the program's top new entry-level technicians.
Steve White, an instructor and chairman of the collision repair program at Oregon's Portland Community College, said he works with his program's advisory committee and the local trade association on an annual event that helps local shops find new employees through the school. During the evening event, participating shops each set up a booth or table inside the school's shop space. All students are required to attend the evening session, during which shops and students can talk one-on-one or in small groups.
"It's a great way for those shops to get a better idea of what they can expect from students in our program," White said. "And our students tell us they often meet employers there that they'd probably never have thought about contacting for work. We have shops participating now even when they don't have immediate openings just to make sure students are aware of them later down the road when the shop is looking to hire someone."
Recruiting quick tips
Talking with other shop owners around the country about how they recruit new employees is a great way to pick up some ideas.
• Advertise on the web. The right job in the right community may entice a technician to move to your area from across the state or across the country. There are numerous websites that allow you to place free 'help wanted' ads. Two places to start are Autobody Online (www.autobodyonline.com) and the Automotive Service Association's site (www.asashop.org). You also can post job openings on your own company's website.
• Host technical training at your shop. Work with I-CAR or a paint or equipment supplier to hold technical training sessions at your shop. The technicians who attend may decide your shop looks like a place they'd want to work. You can post 'help wanted' signs in the shop during the session, or may be able to get a copy of the "sign-in sheet" with the technician's names and phone numbers.
• Get your shop in the news. Technicians want to work in good shops that are well-known in the industry and the community. Positive articles about your shop in trade publications and local media can help bring potential employees to you.
• Look within. Remember that the most "entry-level" positions in your shop will probably be the easiest to fill. If you have a shop assistant or detailer who is a good worker, help them get the training needed to move into a more technical position in your shop.
• Ask current employees. Most of your technicians probably know employees at other shops. Ask them for help in recruiting new employees. You may even offer a bonus to the employee who refers the person you end up hiring for an opening.
• Call your association. Many trade associations maintain lists of technicians who have called looking for work. Fax the association a brief summary of the type of technician you're looking for, and follow-up with a couple of phone calls.
• Work with a "temp" agency. Having trouble attracting applicants for your shop's helper/detailer positions? Call a temporary agency for referrals. One shop owner who has gone this route said not every "temp" has worked out, but letting them go and getting another one is fast and hassle-free - and the shop eventually hired two "temps" on as regular employees. Once hired, they get an immediate "raise" that doesn't cost the shop anything because the employee gets the full amount the shop was already paying the temp agency.
• Think about alternative places to recruit. One shop owner saw the growing Spanish-speaking population in his area and decided to hire a bilingual estimator to help him serve Spanish-speaking customers. That estimator subsequently helped the shop tap into new markets for technicians by helping the shop owner place ads in Spanish newspapers and other places that particular community was likely to see them. "We got twice as many applicants as we did when we advertised in the local daily paper," the shop owner said. "Many of those applicants knew English, but don't read the local paper. They saw our ad in the Spanish paper or the fliers we posted at churches, clubs and restaurants."
• Network with other shops. Finding new employees is one of the best reasons to develop a network of other shop owners - in your area or around the country - that you interact with (by phone, email or meeting) on a regular basis. Shop owners who know each other are far less likely to "steal" employees from one another. And often when you're looking to hire, someone you know may be in the process of reluctantly laying someone off. Lastly, other shop owners may have had applicants at their shop that they can tell you about, or may know someone who is interested in relocating to your area (whether across town or across the country).
John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, who has been writing about the automotive industry since 1988.