Solving the Tech Shortage: Talent Acquisition Program Leaders Share Insight During IBIS USA

Panelists talked about how they are working to attract more young people to choose careers in the collision repair industry.

During IBIS USA, five talent acquisition program leaders shared insight about the technician shortage and the importance of collaboration.

With various talent acquisition initiatives being implemented for the collision industry, five program leaders recently shared insight about the technician shortage during a panel discussion held in March at the International Bodyshop Industry Forum (IBIS) USA conference in Anaheim, CA.

Dave Smith, an independent consultant for the collision industry, moderated the panel, which focused on what is being done to address the talent issue and the collaboration taking place.

Erick Bickett represented the Collision Career Institute as its co-founder and CEO. The institute provides a defined career path and training for entry-level technicians. The executive director of the Collision Repair Education Foundation (CREF), Brandon Eckenrode, discussed CREF’s support of educational programs, schools and students to create qualified, entry-level employees and connect them with career opportunities.

Dara Goroff, I-CAR’s vice president of planning and industry talent programming, shared information about I-CAR’s Collision Careers platform, created for the industry and external partners to collaborate to help reposition the industry as a growing, exciting and stable field. The Collision Careers website includes information about industry roles and explains a typical career path. It also has downloadable posters and printed materials for school administrators, advisors and counselors to share with career seeking students.

Jennifer Maher, CEO of the TechForce Foundation, talked about the nonprofit’s dedication to helping young people explore the technician profession and champion them throughout their journey. The national marketing and engagement director of Collision Engineering, Molly Mahoney, explained their partnership with colleges focused on delivering an immersive apprenticeship training model for collision repair training programs to help build a new generation of collision professionals.

Creating Industry Awareness

Panelists stressed the importance of bringing awareness to the collision industry.

“There are almost 160,000 new technicians needed every year to keep up with demand,” said Maher.

She noted all skilled trades -- auto, diesel, motorcycle, marine, motorsports, welding, etc. -- are facing a shortage.

“At the end of the day, you're not only competing with the other sectors of the mobility industry, you're competing with all skilled trades so you have to cast that net wider,” she advised. “You have to be able to fill the pond and they need to hear that the technician profession is a great career path.”

“We’re essentially in a trade war,” added Eckenrode. “We're competing against the other trades for people. We want to be the first choice for these students.”

Maher said prospective candidates need to see what the industry is like and how they fit in.

“Some will be very passionate about collision; some might not be,” she said. “You need to bring them in because they may start as an auto tech, but then their curiosity is piqued, and they might migrate to collision.”

Bickett pointed out the industry needs a larger funnel.

“We need a good sample to look for the right aptitude and attitude -- what's in the head and the heart -- because we're going to spend a lot of time and energy to help these new entrants be successful.”

Goroff suggested casting that wide net through social channels, YouTube videos and other places where students are already looking for information. The Collision Careers YouTube channel has seven videos, with more to come, ready for industry use and geared towards attracting future technicians to all roles.

She also recommended creating belief.

“If somebody doesn't believe that they will find their fit in our industry, be respected and have a career path, it doesn't matter how much we market to them,” she said. “We truly want people to be able to picture themselves thriving as a collision repair technician.”

When looking for employees, she suggested reaching out to a diverse audience and using words and imagery they aspirationally use to describe themselves, such as innovators, dream makers, problem solvers, creators or game changers.

Eckenrode recommended working with school counselors to help spread the message.

“We've heard that students are being told to pick their career path at the junior high level, so we can't wait until they get to high school to have them consider or even be aware of this industry,” he said. “It’s on us to make sure that we're getting in front of them when they're being told to pick their career path.”

Mahoney noted technical careers are increasingly being talked about in mainstream media.

“The problem is they're not talking about collision,” she said. “What we're seeing, especially at career fairs, is that many of those with a four-year degree are looking for different, unique opportunities.”

However, they often don't know where the entry points are and aren’t easy to find. Mahoney said education must be part of the solution.

Someone might walk into a school and say, ‘I want to do automotive and really want to do collision,’ but they don't know what collision is,” said Mahoney. “It needs to be better outlined. They need to know what the career path is, and they need to hear it from the students and the technicians working today.”

Financial Support for Technical Training

According to CREF’s database, Eckenrode said there are about 960 high school and post-secondary collision school programs nationwide. Many have low enrollment numbers and limited budgets.

“We’ve heard from instructors who have a class of 150 students that their total program budget is $3,000 for the year,” said Eckenrode.

He explained that expectations for a properly trained entry-level student graduating from the program can be limited by what instructors face. Programs are constantly evaluated and if they don’t have enough students, they are often the first to be considered when cutting budgets.

“We can't afford that to happen,” he said. “The support of the industry getting involved and investing in local schools is going to be key to keep them thriving and open.”

Maher said many students lack funding for tuition, even for a one-year or community college program.

“There is a real need for tuition scholarships,” she said. “There’s also the cost of being able to afford the tools and materials."

Whether the barriers are childcare, groceries, family work or a job, Maher said the industry’s job is to determine how to keep students learning. Many use CREF and TechForce for scholarships to help with tuition.

“That’s the kind of involvement we like to see from our employers because they're also making an investment in this young person to keep them in the industry and fill a role in their shop,” said Maher.

Goroff said a scholarship or a donation as small as $1,000 can overcome a barrier and keep a student on a learning path.

The Power of Collaboration

Bickett said a great opportunity exists for the industry to work together to address these issues.

“It’s a huge challenge and a crisis for all of us,” he said. “Everybody can play a role to help solve the problem.”

Bickett suggested the constraint comes from shops and recommended the industry adopt a learning culture.

“As more shops adopt a strategy and there's demand for new entrants, hard work will pay off and create success in growing the organization,” he said.

“The most important thing we can do together is to make sure this industry has a stable future and we are not sustainable without new, fresh talent continuously flowing in,” said Goroff.

She recommended uplifting each other to make this an industry of choice.

“We promote TechForce and the Collision Engineering program and will hopefully be marketing our partnerships with many others in the industry, starting with those that are not for profit,” Goroff said. “This will enable our technicians to be successful as they learn.”

CREF and I-CAR collaborate with the American School Counselor Association and attend events with counselors from across the country to share information about the industry and present it in a more professional light.

In addition to talking to counselors, Maher said it’s important to speak to students and understand what they get excited about in a career. TechForce partnered with Collision Engineering to conduct a focus group with collision students. Using the information they learned, the organizations created a video to attract students to the profession.

“Collaborating with other organizations and being able to go into schools and listen and hear and then regurgitate back to them what they're saying is really powerful,” she said.

"It’s on us as an industry to get involved and invest in the local schools to show the administration, students and instructors that there's an industry out there that cares about them,” said Eckenrode.

“There is a tremendously large web of opportunity that we have in this industry for somebody who is looking not just to be stable in a career and to make a good living, but to be able to grow and thrive,” said Goroff. “We just need to elevate the industry first.”

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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