Shops and schools look for solutions to low starting wages

Shops and schools look for solutions to low starting wages

Eric Reid wants to do his part to reduce the shortage of collision repair technicians he's always hearing and reading about. But Reid, the collision repair instructor at Northwest-Shoals Community College in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, is getting discouraged watching his top students move on to other fields because of low starting wages at body shops. 

"I'm talking they'll offer them $6.50 or $7 an hour," says Reid. "An adult, anyone who's skilled, can't afford to work for that. That's a slap in the face. It just kills their ambition."

Reid's program has produced the winner of the Alabama SkillsUSA collision repair competition for each of the past three years. But, he said, none of these three best-in-state entry-level technicians is working in the collision repair field. The 2004 winner, for example, decided he couldn't leave his $14-an-hour factory job painting semi-trailers when the highest offer he received in the collision repair industry was $8.50 an hour.

Techs can't leave better paying jobs

Wes Bishop of Russellville, Alabama, faced a similar situation after being named best-in-state in 2003. He's continued working as a mechanical technician because he couldn't find collision repair work that would start him at much more than minimum wage.

"They looked at the experience and degree like it wasn't even there," Bishop said of his body shop interviews. "I may as well have walked in off the street. When I went into this course of study, there was a big demand for it. They said, 'We need more technicians. We need more technicians.' But they didn't say: We're not going to pay them anything.

"The technology is advancing every year, and some of the guys in the shops now don't have the skills that [Nothwest-Shoals] trained us with. I'm happy doing what I'm doing. It's just a shame that I went to college. I enjoy doing the body work more, but the money isn't there."

Reid, who said the 2002 Alabama SkillsUSA winner in collision repair is working for UPS, recognizes that the situation may be better in larger communities. But Steve White, an instructor and chairman of the collision repair program at Oregon's Portland Community College said he and his students have faced similar challenges, particularly with the slowdown in the economy over the past three or four years. He recalls one recent graduate who he expected to do well in the industry.

"He's a really responsible, hard- working, nice, polite, quiet guy who did everything you asked him as best he could and did it well," White said. "He got hired by a shop and worked there for probably close to two years and never got over $8 an hour. He finally just threw in the towel and went to work for a wrecking yard. It's too bad, because he wasn't really just a helper. He was doing everything from frame work to replacing major panels. It wasn't that he wasn't capable. It's an example of someone who didn't progress [in the industry] at the rate he was capable of progressing and got disgusted and took off."

Ron Ray, executive director of the I-CAR Education Foundation, said this is certainly an issue that has been discussed at gatherings of collision repair instructors from around the country as they look for ways - other than harping on shop owners to offer more money - to help keep entry- level technicians in the industry.

I-CAR ed foundation study

The results of the Foundation's national study released last August found that on average shops said they expected to pay entry-level new hires $9.55 per hour, or $382 per week, about half the wages of a journeyman. The survey asked shop owners how long they felt it would take that entry- level technician to be fully productive. Responses ranged from six months to 10 years, but two years was the most common answer with the average being 3.6 years.

"Production collision repair technicians are paid, on average, better than comparable trades and have excellent income potential," the study concludes. But it also points out that "competition for entry-level workers, especially from other service industries, is expected to increase."

While Reid and his former students in Alabama are not alone in being discouraged by low starting wages in the industry, it isn't a universal problem. Nicolaus Ranker of Lakewood, Colorado, is a good example of excellence being rewarded. Ranker has competed at the national collision repair SkillsUSA Championships twice - winning the high school championship two years ago, and finishing second in the post-secondary level competition this past summer.

Some areas better than others

About a year ago, he started as a helper at a large dealership collision repair shop, working under a journeyman technician but largely seeing his jobs through on his own. His wage: $11 an hour.

"I get paid hourly, not on any type of commission, which is sort of nice," Ranker said. "I think it's fairly good compared to what a lot of other helpers are paid. I think I'm paid adequately for where I am."

Ranker is excited about the career opportunities his collision repair training has made possible. Ray, White and others say Ranker's experience is not unique; there are ways that students, instructors, shops and even vendors and insurers are getting involved to reduce the number of collision repair graduates who jump ship to another industry.

For example, when Ray speaks with students about the opportunities in this industry, he encourages them to think longer term. They may be able to earn a dollar or two more per hour at another job in their first or second year. But within two to four years most technicians soon see a rapid increase in their income that will far outpace what they are likely to see at many other jobs, Ray said.

National average pay is rising

His organization's survey found that the national average salary for a production technician over 20 years old is $44,819, up 8 percent from three years ago. Average wages for those technicians with I-CAR training or ASE certifications are $2,000 to $4,000 higher than the overall national average. And if those same technicians work in shops with annual sales of $1 million or more, the average income jumps to over $52,000. The top 10 percent of the nation's technicians earn an average of $76,782, and the survey found technicians earning as much as $110,000.

Instructor White said that he's found that the more he can get his students and shop owners to interact, the more realistic both sides become about appropriate starting wages.

"The best thing we can do is have more contact between the two groups," said White, who takes students on shop tours and brings shop owners in to offer "guest lectures" and to conduct mock interviews with students. "The shops have a chance to find out more about the program and to talk to these guys, find out what they're learning, and know more about them by the time they're ready for employment. And the students get a better understanding of what the opportunities are.

"All you have to do is visit three or four or five of the shops whose owners participate on our industry advisory committee to find a whole bunch of our former students who have been treated well," White said. "Within a reasonably short time, their wages are rewarding them for what they do. Usually within a year-and- a-half to two years, these guys are producing money and getting paid well for what they do."

School programs include hands-on

White said his school's program requires students to spend at least one term working - either paid or unpaid - in a shop. And while that too is helpful in improving their starting wages, he said what's even better is when students can apprentice throughout their two years, alternating between time at the school and at a shop. Early in the training, neither the student nor shop has overly high expectations, so starting wages aren't so discouraging, White said, and the students progress in their learning - and earning - faster with the real-world experience.

Schools, shops, insurers and vendors in some markets have also worked together to co-sponsor entry-level students to make the industry's entry-level positions more appealing. The shop pays the student the hourly wage it can afford, while a paint supplier or other vendor - and in at least one instance, an insurance company - ponies up $1 to $3 an hour to supplement the entry-level wages.

Although Reid hopes more shop owners will see that it is in their own best interests to pay enough to keep top entry- level talent in the industry, he too is looking for ways to make his program's graduates "worth more" to shops. His program is meeting the curriculum and other requirements to join the Industry Training Alliance, which means his graduates can apply to also leave with Gold Class Professionals points for just a small administrative fee.

Reid believes some potential employers may even pay that fee because it gets them an employee with Gold Class points without the full expense of sending that technician to I-CAR or equivalent training.

"If they need an employee to maintain their Gold Class designation, they might be willing to negotiate on his pay a little bit," Reid said. "In any case, it should make our graduates a little more marketable."

John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, who has been writing about the automotive industry since 1988.

John Yoswick

John Yoswick is a freelance writer and Autobody News columnist who has been covering the collision industry since 1988, and the editor of the CRASH Network... Read More

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