Laramie County (WY) Community College’s decision to deactivate its automotive body repair program is raising concerns with some industry partners, who say it’s one more blow to an industry already struggling to find talent.
On March 17, the LCCC Board of Trustees voted to close the program at the end of this school year, citing low enrollment, the expensive nature of the program and lower starting wages than those in comparable technical fields.
Fewer than 12 students have enrolled in the auto body repair program since 2019, and only a total of four students have enrolled during the 2020-21 school year.
The decision comes months after the college made a $4 million reduction in its annual budget, which is part of Gov. Mark Gordon’s directive that all state agencies cut their budgets by at least 10%.
One full-time faculty member will lose their job as a result of the program closure.
LCCC President Joe Schaffer estimated deactivating the program will save the college roughly $200,000, which he said the college intends to reallocate toward building its manufacturing program offerings. Right now, the college does not offer a degree program in the area.
“This is one part budget-related. But the other part is our interest in ramping up our advanced manufacturing programming,” Schaffer told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle on March 19, lamenting the austere budget environment that has forced these decisions. “Our plans at this juncture are to utilize [the auto collision repair] space to house the manufacturing programming, which aligns with the state’s and region’s economic development goals.”
David Robinette, the Northwest regional business development principal for the Inter-industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair (I-CAR), which has provided the curriculum to LCCC’s program, said the deactivation is just one of several “unfortunate” auto body repair program closures he’s seen across the Mountain West over the past few years.
“We can’t keep closing these schools, because we’re in a critical state in the collision industry with a shortage of new entry-level technicians coming in. They’re not coming in as fast as the retirees are coming out,” Robinette said. “Every time one of these schools closes, we’re that much closer to an irretrievable problem.”
Robinette believes a lack of recruitment and...
...understanding about the potential of a career in collision repair across the industry as a whole has contributed to the kind of low enrollment numbers LCCC pointed to as a big reason for the closure. The college also cited influence from the insurance industry keeping starting wages low for collision repair technicians compared to mechanics.
Robinette said there is truth to that, but it’s a shortsighted view.
“Mechanics are going to make a few more bucks initially,” he said. “It depends on a couple of factors, but I would submit that within a couple of years they’re at least equal. And most likely, the collision person is making more during the same 40-hour work week.”
Robby Bartlett, body shop manager for Spradley Barr Motors in Cheyenne, WY, said he’s hired more than 10 graduates of LCCC’s soon-to-be deactivated program over the last five years. Some of his early career employees are making between $50,000 and $60,000 per year; one of his more experienced repair technicians is bringing home closer to $80,000 annually.
The program at LCCC, which he often partnered with to hire apprentices and later full-time staff, was a pipeline for his business. After the program closes, the privately operated Laramie-based WyoTech will be the only school near Cheyenne to offer formal collision repair training---and it is far more expensive than the program at LCCC.
“We already struggle with a lack of technicians. Having that program shut down now means there’s one less avenue to turn to for new employees,” said Bartlett, who has served on LCCC’s auto body advisory committee. “It was nice to see a Wyoming-based school drawing Wyoming-based students that were looking to stay in the area and our state. We already struggle with that.”
Retention of Wyoming’s skilled workforce across many different industries is a challenge Gov. Gordon has highlighted numerous times during his tenure, most recently during his State of the State address in February.
“We should be thinking about...
...keeping the people who know what to do and how to do it,” he said. “If we want to reduce government, in my view, we can only do it with motivated people who know how to do their jobs.”
On a more granular level, the closure of LCCC’s auto body repair program will shift the burden of growing an already limited workforce onto local businesses like the one Bartlett manages.
Students who graduate from a program like LCCC’s come out with industry certifications, which is something Bartlett’s shop---and the handful of others in town---haven’t had to pay for.
“Now, we’re forced to just find people with zero experience who have never been through a class or program and just hope they fit the mold when we train them ourselves,” he said. “You’re talking time, as well as the cost for the training, to get them up to the same level as students would be when they graduate.”