ABRA Sets the Record Straight On The Company's New Career Development Academy

ABRA Sets the Record Straight On The Company's New Career Development Academy

Graduates of ABRA Auto & Glass’s new apprentice technician program are being offered attractive incentives that most new employees dream about: immediate job placement, average salaries of $80,000, eligibility for a retention bonus and thousands of dollars in tools.

The Springboard Apprentice Technician Program was launched this past summer at the company’s new Career Development Academy in Eagan, MN. Autobody News spoke to David Kuhl, the chief people officer at ABRA, about the program, which focuses on attracting and retaining the best talent in the industry. Kuhl said the sky is the limit for these students who represent the workforce of tomorrow.

Q: Can you please tell us about ABRA’s Springboard Program and the Career Development Academy (CDA)?

A: ABRA was established in 1984 and has more than 5,200 employees who work in the company’s 334 repair centers located in 24 states across the nation. The company launched a five-week accelerated training program in July, which is held at our new Career Development Academy. The 14,000-square-foot facility is located in Eagan, MN, and is both a training and production facility.

The program was implemented to prepare students with the skills and knowledge necessary to perform disassembly and reassembly of vehicles, minor dent repair, plastic bumper repair, steel welds, set up a vehicle in a measurement system, and non-structural glass removal and install.

Those who complete the apprentice program have the option to continue their training to become a C-Level technician with ABRA. Our instructors use I-CAR programs and certification as part of the apprentice program and our vendor partners have donated equipment for the shop, which has created a real production environment.

Beng Lee (SpringBoard Apprentice) confers with Joshua Rohde (ABRA CDA GM) on sheet metal work.

Q: What prompted the opening of CDA?

A: Three things prompted its opening: our demands, the ABRA approach and Millennials.

As far as our demands, we are leaders in customer service, quality and cost. This is awesome, but the challenge is finding enough talent to do the work that is coming in the door. In terms of the ABRA approach, our company has had an intense focus on quality and lean manufacturing. This is a very specialized way of doing our work. We felt that we needed a specialized training program that was immersive and intensive, and would expedite the learning curve pretty significantly.

The bottom line is that we have an opportunity to deliver highly skilled and motivated C-level technicians who are not only trained but embody our culture and values. The good news is that our repair centers are literally fighting to employ our CDA graduates.

The third reason we opened the academy has to do with millennials. Quite frankly, millennials aren’t going into the trades at the same rate as the generations before them did. This problem is not unique to ABRA. There is a huge demand and we need to educate people about this industry and how wonderful and lucrative it can be. We’re not just educating the general public but individuals who might be choosing between college or the trades.

Q: It sounds like ABRA is meeting an important need in the industry. How many students have applied for the program and will all of them be placed in an ABRA location upon graduation?

A: We used several media outlets to get the word out and we had a really good turnout! We actually had 450 applicants and there were 10 students in our first class. We’ve placed 100% of our graduates to date.

We have so much work that we could literally hire 150 experienced body technicians. As we move forward, the plan is to have 100-125 academy grads per year and we may even build additional programs on top of that. It has been really amazing and exciting to see so many people who raised their hands and wanted to be part of this.

Many say they were struggling and couldn’t go to college or were in jobs with little or no future. The program has literally changed their lives.

Christine Newman, Nick Spadoni, Ivy Hoffman, and Neal Sims; members of the Academy’s second class of 10 apprentices, watch as Loren Estwick (ABRA Technical Trainer), shows how to prep a bumper cover for repair.

Q: What is the cost of the program?

A: This is what makes us really unique---there is no cost. In fact, we pay them for the duration of the five weeks of training. When they graduate, we give them about $3,000 worth of tools, and they are placed in clean, well-run repair centers. On top of that, we wanted to make it even more compelling. We give them a sign-on bonus paid out over a couple of years, which is a significant amount of money.

We wanted to make sure we got the best of the best. Everyone is looking for talent and by creating such a unique and loyal experience, we hope they don’t even think about leaving ABRA when other companies come knocking on the door.

We are currently looking for more students, folks who are highly passionate about cars and committed to a career and want to be part of what we think is the best apprenticeship program on the planet.

Q: How will this initiative address the talent gap in the industry and what is ABRA’s vision for the academy?

A: Many of our leaders in the company started as a body technician or as an estimator and ended up managing a store, a market, or a region. It’s much more than a technical job for some folks—it’s a career. It can be a very lucrative and successful job. We want to share that information with the general public and also to people in the trades.

I honestly feel that we have created opportunities for folks who might not have thought about collision repair. For instance, We’re seeing a good number of women coming into the program, which traditionally has not happened in our industry. I'm really proud and excited to see that we have three women in a class, and we’re hoping to have more join on as we go forward. Our goal is to build awareness about not just ABRA but the opportunities in this industry as being a great place to start or advance your career.

Q: Many in the industry were surprised to hear that technicians could earn $80,000 a year. Is this a real possibility for technicians?

A: It’s not a possibility; it’s a reality. As we share information about the program, we want to be very thoughtful and careful what we tell them about the career path and the income trajectory. As we look across ABRA today, an $80,000 salary is an average number. Almost 25 percent of our technicians earn over $100,000 a year and it really comes down to the individual’s ability to be efficient, productive and be able to work on a team. A lot of people might not realize that it can be as lucrative as that.

As part of our lean process, our technicians can become highly successful when they follow our process. It is an alternative to going to college and racking up a bunch of debt; you can really earn a nice living being a body technician.

Ivy Hoffman mixes metal glaze for small repair in metal finishing.

Q: When you were formalizing the program, what did you learn?

A: We went out into the field and talked to our seasoned technicians and store leaders. We asked them how long it would take to become a really good C-level technician. They told us that you would have to work on hundreds and hundreds of cars. We took that as a challenge. The initial timeframe we gave was about 12-18 months, as a best-case scenario.

We have a very regimented program and have been able to take that from 12 months to literally three months. I’m proud to say that the two first classes graduated and they’re doing work that typically would take 12 months.

All of a sudden people realized that the right learning environment will create incredible quality, proficiency and production. This is changing the way we are thinking about talent. If we can do this in five weeks and maybe another month in the field, it will alter the way we think about bringing talent in.

The last piece that is really interesting is that we’re not screening for technical skills. We can take someone who just graduated from high school who welds cars, and maybe has been working in the backyard or with their dad on a car and we can put them through two online assessments that look at attitude and personality, and mechanical aptitude.

We are able to determine who has the attitude, work ethic, the process focus and the mechanical aptitude for this industry. It’s phenomenal how people have gone through those assessments, and then done really well in the program.

Q: What are the initial indications after launching in July?

A: When you start a new program like this, you really don’t know what to expect because the industry doesn’t have a well-defined career path for body technicians. Part of our work is to define what it really means be an A-, B- and C-level tech and the skills, experiences and proficiencies needed to get from one level to the next.

We think that’s important because it gives us an opportunity to articulate and explain the training that is needed to get to the next level. It also gives us the ability to set compensation according to specific skill levels and competencies.

This is particularly important with millennials, who are continuous learners and grew up with the ability to self-educate. Although the program is not just for millennials, that seems to be a constant trend. It allows them to know how to reach a certain goal, what it takes and then what happens at that point.

Q: Does this have any effect on technical schools?

A: Some people have asked us if we are taking students away from technical schools. We really aren’t. Instead, we are reaching out to many potential applicants who never even considered this career. The industry has a shortage of talent. Our hope is that our competitors may also see this as a good opportunity to find talent and encourage more people to join this industry.

Stacey Phillips Ronak

Stacey Phillips Ronak is an award-winning writer for the automotive industry and a regular columnist for Autobody News based in Southern California.

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