From coast to coast, collision repairers are talking about the talent pool shortage facing the industry and what can be done to address what some are calling an impending crisis.
As vehicles are becoming more difficult to repair due to the increasing amount of technology being used, shop owners and leaders are recognizing the risks associated with not having qualified technicians on staff.
During a recent Elite Body Shop Academy webinar, host Dave Luehr explored the issue in-depth with Erick Bickett, co-founder of Fix Auto USA, founder of the Collision Industry Electronic Commerce Association (CIECA) and founder of the Collision Career Institute (CCI), and Amber Ritter, CCI’s chief operations officer.
Luehr, owner of Elite Body Shop Solutions and the chairman of the Collision Industry Conference’s Talent Pool Committee, asked Bickett and Ritter to share the reasons behind the shortage, what the barriers are to solve it, and how shops can work with schools to attract more talent through apprenticeship programs.
Available talent has been in decline for decades, Luehr pointed out. Now, with aging baby boomers retiring, the technician shortage is becoming a critical problem for businesses across the country. According to statistics from the Collision Repair Education Foundation (CREF), the average age of a technician in 1995 was 35 years old. Today, it is over 40 years old.
“As this trend continues, and the baby boomers retire, we really need to get to work on this and do something about this challenge,” said Bickett.
However, there are certain barriers to address before solving the dilemma.
Some of these, according to Ritter, include a lack of cohesion in the industry, the absence of business culture and little structured training.
Bickett said many shop owners joined the industry as a result of working in a family business or helping a friend. As a result, structured training wasn’t often part of the learning process.
“This is an industry that didn’t learn from being trained with any kind of formality,” said Bickett. “Many of us didn’t plan on being in this industry and somehow we fell into it and have become passionate about it.”
As independent entrepreneurs, Bickett said the focus is typically on short-term goals and getting the job done rather than setting up programs to encourage new talent to join the business.
Often, shop owners turn to hiring employees from competitors.
“That has resulted in a lot of issues and challenges for us,” commented Bickett.
Through his experience over the years sitting on advisory boards of local institutions and trying to help support their needs, Bickett has found there is no demand for the “product” -- students.
“As crazy as that sounds, there are very few collision shops that reach out to schools and get actively involved and hire students,” said Bickett. “This problem is not going to go away. It’s going to get worse.”
He said shop owners and leaders need to make a commitment to take action. This requires discipline, planning and an investment in time, resources and capital.
“Once you have demand, you have more students; once you have more students, you get more funding,” said Bickett.
Therefore, consistent industry support is going to be crucial to help make a change.
Bickett founded CCI in 2016 to help bridge the gap between Career-Technology Education (CTE) programs and industry jobs. Through the work he is doing with CCI, Bickett has observed that trades with a union involved usually have flourishing apprenticeship programs in place.
The CCI is following this example and setting up apprenticeship programs for the collision repair industry. Over the past three years, the institute has been prototyping an apprenticeship on-the-job training program. Trainees, trainers and body shops are first put through an extensive series of assessments. Then, intensive training programs are put into place and CCI matches qualified candidates with participating shops.
“Apprenticeship programs work because there is commitment and requirement, but it’s on the industry to solve this problem,” he said.
Often, students haven’t experienced the same type of demands that occur in a production environment. Ritter said the challenge is to find a way for new talent to enter a production environment and learn.
“It’s almost like you have to relearn each of those skills in a live production environment working with all of the additional demands that a body shop has,” said Ritter.
Bickett and Ritter have found that apprenticeship programs are helping to bridge that gap.
“We don’t think there is a shortage of candidates,” said Bickett. “We actually have a shortage of collision shops that are willing to engage with them.”
One of the key strategies that Bickett said CCI focuses on in its business model is ensuring a trainee isn’t washing cars and running errands. Instead, the collision student is integrated into the production environment.
“A lot of times, we hire them and hand them a broom and show them the lot instead of showing them their opportunities,” said Bickett. “When you make that commitment, the natural outcome is you start to develop a learning environment.”
Students then have a clear pathway and know the steps they need to take to be successful.
“A lot of times, this helps motivate them to keep moving forward,” said Ritter.
However, Ritter said it’s not always easy.
“You are going to have successes, and you are going to have failures,” she said. “It’s ok to try apprenticeship with someone and have them not make it. That doesn’t ruin the whole process. It just means you have to start over.”
She said the ones who make it through are going to be the “cream of the crop.”
7 Ways to Take Action
Take Personal Responsibility: With recent statistics showing there are more Millennials than baby boomers, Luehr said it’s becoming increasingly important to build shops and environments they are going to want to come to work for.
Bickett said you can’t just put an ad on Indeed.com and expect to find someone who is qualified, and has the aptitude, attitude and learning ability to complete the job.
“It’s a great industry and a great career,” said Bickett. “It’s just a matter of us being able to articulate and demonstrate that.”
Build a Learning Culture: Bickett recommends creating a system that incorporates training and becomes part of the shop’s culture.
“You just get started; sit down, write a plan and follow the plan,” he advised.
When devising a plan, determining the retention rate can be beneficial. “If you have a high turnover rate, address that before you start bringing in new employees and training and developing them,” said Ritter.
Make Training a Priority: Bickett said recognition is a huge part of this. One suggestion is to establish a different class of technician; for example, Triple-A Tech or Double-A Tech (AAA Tech and AA Tech). By elevating an employee’s role at the company, Bickett has noticed other workers also strive toward this goal to improve their careers.
Connect With Schools: Reaching out to local schools and working alongside instructors can aid students in working toward a career path. This allows shops to share what skills are needed to be successful so students can focus on those priorities in their coursework.
“I think there are plenty of the next generation who can benefit greatly from the opportunities in our industry,” said Bickett. “I think we have to figure out how to get to them sooner and we have to find a position in the marketplace for the young people.”
Incorporate Mentoring: One of the fundamental aspects of a successful apprenticeship program, according to Luehr, is mentoring. Ritter recommended having mentors share information in “bite-sized” pieces to help trainees retain the information. Also, she said to spend time pairing people who work well together.
Ritter said apprentices who are trained in this way are going to be a shop’s best mentors because that’s how they learned.
“That’s when your culture starts shifting,” she said.
Research Alternative Funding: Funding is often available through workforce development boards and state boards. Ritter said to start building relationships with state and local government officials to find out more about the programs available in your area. Community programs are also a potential source of funding that can be explored.
Collaborate: In order to create positive change, Ritter stressed the importance of collaboration.
“We really need to make sure we are collaborating and working together, lifting each other up and supporting each other,” said Ritter.
“It’s an industry problem; it has to be an industry solution. We can’t impact change unless we have the involvement of all,” said Bickett. “When an industry comes together and can standardize and speak the same language, I think it can make a tremendous impact.”
For more information about CCI, visit https://www.collisioncareerinstitute.com/.
To watch the free replay of the webinar and all of the Elite webinar series, visit https://events.genndi.com/replay/818182175026316819/c01972848e/0/0.