Techs of the Future: The Importance of Creating Lifelong Learners and Implementing Hands-on Efficiency Training

John Helterbrand and students
John Helterbrand, right, department chair of the automotive collision repair program at Ranken Technical College, with students Spencer Woodall and Robert Burkett.

Author's note: Over a year ago, Jeff Smith, a collision repair instructor at the Northeast Arkansas Career and Technical Center, reached out to me about the overwhelming shortage of technicians. As a result of our conversation, I initiated a new column for Autobody News, "Solving the Tech Shortage," which has since received an award.

At the time, shop owners and managers faced a shared challenge: how and where to find new technicians. My intent was to come up with ways for the industry to discuss ideas on how to solve this problem. Since then, our industry has encountered new unexpected challenges due to the pandemic. In light of the recent changes in shops across the country, I felt it was appropriate to rename the column to “Techs of the Future” and focus on ways body shops can help recruit, develop and retain technicians for the future.

I encourage you to reach out to me with any ideas you would like to share with others in this forum.

Workforce development and technician recruitment remain a top priority for repair shops across the country.

Aaron Schulenburg, executive director of the Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS), said there are some unique initiatives currently taking place in the industry.

“The reality is the gap we have is far too wide for any one program to simply wipe away,” said Schulenburg. “The more opportunities there are to pull people into this industry, bring them up to speed with what they need and get them ready to be producing on the shop floor, the more the industry will benefit.”

During the SCRS open board meeting in July, the association invited two educators from Ranken Technical College and Matrix Trade Institute to share information about the programs they have established and how they are making a difference.

Creating Lifelong Learners at Ranken Technical College

A few years ago, John Helterbrand recognized many of the students graduating from the automotive collision repair program at Ranken Technical College in Missouri couldn’t find a job. Although they had successfully earned their associate’s degree, were eager to work and had a good work ethic, the department chair of the program said they weren’t being hired by the collision repair industry.

“As an educator, that’s a big problem,” said Helterbrand.

As a result, he set out to make some changes. Helterbrand reached out to the school’s advisory board, and then talked to students to learn about their concerns. He soon found retention was one of the main issues.

“Students felt they didn’t fit into a shop’s culture or were making a difference; they were essentially lost in the business model,” said Helterbrand. “We’re all so busy doing processes, we forget we’re people.”

Worst of all, according to Helterbrand, he found employers were often shortsighted and convincing students they didn’t need an education.

“For a student, who has low self esteem, that’s detrimental for their success because they always feel like they aren’t completing something,” said Helterbrand.

Helterbrand also reached out to several OEMS in the industry with internships programs, including Toyota, Honda, GM and Ford. He found retention was very high within these programs and wanted to learn more about how they keep students motivated.

“The OEMs do a very good job of what I call ‘culture experience,’” he said.

A pilot project was then initiated at Ranken College using the best practices from the OEM programs. It consists of five semesters of learning, which includes a semester of aluminum training.

As part of Ranken’s program, students are paired with a mentor. Together, they follow an operator game plan, outlined in a booklet that walks them through the learning process. The intent is to keep track of what is accomplished, so neither the mentor nor the student becomes overwhelmed.

“The idea behind the automotive program is to make somebody productive on day one,” said Helterbrand. This may include teaching students about tear down methods, detailing or R&I. Industry training is provided from organizations such I-CAR, SP/2 and ALLDATA.

A set of tools is also given to each of the students.

“If we are going to put our students to work, we need to make sure they have tools,” said Helterbrand. “We don’t want them digging in other people’s toolboxes. They need to have something they feel is theirs.”

In addition, students learn about shop culture and develop interviewing skills. The goal is to find a place for them to work in the industry after the first eight weeks of hands-on training.

Helterbrand said Ranken Technical College and other accredited technical colleges and high schools must ensure students are receiving high quality education so they are marketable when they graduate.

“The industry plays a very big role in this,” said Helterbrand. “We have to be able to help students prepare themselves for the industry.”

Working together, his hope is they create lifelong learners who aspire to be part of the industry for the long term.

More information about the pilot program is expected to be announced in late summer 2020.

Implementing Hands-on Efficiency Training at Matrix Trade Institute

Dustin Peugeot, CEO and co-founder of the Matrix Trade Institute, said it’s critical to look at workforce development and technician training through the lens of a student.

“If we forget that, whatever kind of education or training we provide won’t resonate with the student,” he said.

The Matrix Trade Institute was established two years ago in Beachwood, OH, and is currently expanding to Detroit.

“We’re the new kid on the block but fortunately, we have done more things right than wrong and built some nice momentum,” he said.

Peugeot said that too often, employers find that entry-level technicians don’t have the proper training or skills needed to be effective and productive on the shop floor.

As a result, Matrix assists employers retain and grow the next generation of technicians. Peugeot said the goal is to create an environment where shops ultimately hire fewer employees, by boosting productivity and creating a cohesive culture.

“We believe the best recruiting model is a great retention model,” said Peugeot.

Their focus is to “revitalize, retain and recruit.”

“We all fight that battle of trying to get the best and brightest to feel good about entering the trades,” said Peugeot. “We have to put forth the effort to make that as appealing as possible, not only for trainees, but also for the people in their lives who need to support and be proud of their decision.”

He stressed the importance of investing time and energy into the development of current employees. The first step is talking to employers about the various ways they can encourage their teams to become more involved in their own development and plot a career path, based on training, education and growth.

By taking this approach, Peugeot said employees will never have a reason to leave the business, because they are being provided with all of the skills required to do their jobs effectively.

The next step is revitalizing employees by investing in their skills and growth, offering specific skills training and increasing production.

Ultimately, Peugeot said this allows shops to recruit differently and find employees to focus on specific functions that work well in the business and increase throughput.

For shop owners looking to find the next generation of the workforce, Peugeot encourages them to set up their businesses in such a way that they are considered the best landing spot for a recruit, regardless of their education.

“We have to look within before we can start complaining about Millennials or work ethic or people wanting to get into the trade,” he said.

Currently, Matrix offers 20-week programs in collision repair and refinish, automotive maintenance and service advisor training, all of which focus on a hands-on efficiency-based curriculum. Students typically intern after the first two or three weeks. Peugeot said students are seen as productive members of the business the first day of an internship.

Similar to the program at Ranken College, participants receive a tool set and are shown how to organize it.

Rather than relying on outdated textbooks, the programs focus on modern technology, such as interactive, game-style learning simulation. They have found this enables individuals to perform, feel valued and grow within their internships. The majority of the time, Peugeot said the internships turn into full-time employment.

Peugeot said it’s critical to help the industry become a better place to onboard employees and develop employees who work hard, show up on time and want to work.

“We can’t blame the students of this generation,” he said. “We have to look within and find out how we can become better employers, recruiters and growers of talent.”

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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