Solving the Tech Shortage: Hawaiian Technical School Instructor Helps Train Technicians of the Future
Written by Stacey Phillips, Autobody News
Published February 4, 2020
Just over two decades ago, Marlene Spence entered the Autobody Repair & Paint Program at Honolulu Community College in 1997 and earned an Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) degree two years later.
Fast forward to 2020, and Spence is now teaching as a lecturer in that same program to help train the technicians of the future.
When prospective collision repair students ask Spence about the importance of attending an auto body program, she tells them that it will provide the knowledge they need to work at a body shop.
“If they come to college, they won’t have to start as the guy who sweeps the shop or washes the car or moves the car,” said Spence. “Instead, they can start with an entry technician position with better pay.”
This is the first year Spence has taught at the community college. Growing up, she always had an interest in cars but spent most of her free time attending art and music classes. She attended Honolulu Community College as an art major and decided to switch to auto body, so she could learn how to custom paint.
After graduating, she worked at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard painting submarines for six months, one of which was the USS Keywest nuclear submarine.
“It was a great experience,” said Spence. “It was unlike anything I had done before.”
Over the next several years, she worked as a paint technician for a local Honolulu jobber, Hi-Line Distributors, as well as for Industrial Finishes in Oregon. She also owned a shop where she worked on custom motorcycles.
Through the years, Spence always had a desire to go back to the community college to teach. When the opportunity to become a lecturer presented itself in the latter part of 2019, she said it was an easy decision to return.
“It’s exciting and I love it,” she said.
She currently has nine students as part of the one-year program and focuses on a combination of lecturing and hands-on learning.
“I find that they retain more when they are actually doing the work,” she said.
In the classroom, Spence focuses on developing the core skills students need in the field: attendance, attitude, organization, communication and developing a tight team that looks out for one another.
This past November, she traveled with her students to the SEMA Show in Las Vegas to show them the various opportunities available in the industry. A few of them with native Hawaiian ancestry received financial assistance to attend as part of the ALU LIKE, Inc. Hama Lima Scholarship. The program offers a $1,500 award to students participating in a vocational or technical education program for occupations that can provide a “living wage.”
“They were blown away at the show,” said Spence.
She recalls that one of her students told her that going to SEMA and seeing the opportunities available in the collision repair industry changed his life.
Spence is now in the process of updating the curriculum at the school, which was the same material used while she attended the program. She is relying on information provided from the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair (I-CAR) as well as the Collision Career Institute (CCI).
She is also working to boost enrollment, so the auto body program isn’t cut.
While at the SEMA Show, Spence had the opportunity to attend a Collision Repair Education Foundation (CREF) roundtable meeting. There, she met other instructors with similar challenges.
“I think other instructors across the nation are in this same situation,” she said. “At the end of the day, school is a business,” said Spence. “They need enrollment to make the money to have the program survive.”
Her advice to other instructors facing these challenges is to reach out to prospective students by attending career fairs at local high schools, visiting elementary schools and hosting tours to share information about the industry.
While attending these types of events herself, Spence often observes that many parents try to steer their kids away from learning about vocational trades.
“They don’t know that their children can make a really good living with minimal tuition and the skills stay with them forever,” she said.
As a result, she stresses the importance of educating parents and students about the opportunities available and the type of future that is possible.
“The more it’s out there, the more people will start accepting it and encourage their children to take something like this,” said Spence. “I know I’m passionate and I portray that to these future techs. If you don’t believe in it, they can pick up on it.”
She also recommends reaching out to local associations and body shops to build connections.
“If shops don’t already have relationships, build them because they are going to be your backbone of support,” said Spence. “The schools only know what they know and not always what the industry needs, so you need to get the industry behind you.”
Spence has experienced industry support first-hand through the March Taylor Memorial Foundation. When she first began teaching, she realized that the tools in the college body shop were old and rusty.
“These are the same tools used when I was going to school there,” she said.
She talked to Toby Chess and Dale Matsumoto, both of whom are committee members from the March Taylor Memorial Foundation.
Taylor worked in the collision repair industry and was known for being a compassionate businessman committed to changing the industry for the better and helping people learn. He lived his life according to the Hawaiian word “Kina’ole,” which means “Doing the right thing in the right way, at the right time, in the right place, to the right person, for the right reason, with the right feeling … the first time.”
The foundation was established in 2007 by close industry friends who knew Taylor and also believed in his passion. Other committee members include Jeff Hendler, Collision Industry Conference (CIC) administrator; Jordan Hendler, president of Admin Concepts; and Barry Dorn, owner of Dorn’s Body and Paint in Mechanicsville, VA.
Today, the donations received by the industry are used to provide opportunities for the next generation of technicians.
Chess had originally met Marlene while she was a manager at Hi-Line.
“She has a lot of technical experience, knows how to fix welders and is one of the best painters I’ve ever seen,” said Chess. “Every time we would do a training seminar, she was always involved and helped bring people in.”
Chess recommended Spence apply for an educational grant through the foundation.
“March was always adamant about supporting the technicians in the industry and also big on promoting education,” said Matsumoto, who owns Auto Body Hawaii with his wife, Rissa. “The scholarship fund is about giving back. March always gave—he never took.”
Matsumoto said the foundation really embodies “Kina’ole” and what he referred to as the “circle of giving.”
“When the industry supports the foundation, the foundation is able to support schools, which educates and supports students and ultimately the outcome is that industry gets back a better technician,” he said. “When you truly give from the heart, then good things really happen.”
Spence prepared a wish list of tools that would be helpful to have in the shop. Chess said the cost of the tools came close to $4,000. The March Taylor Memorial Foundation donated $1,000 and the Automotive Body & Painting Association of Hawaii (ABPAH) matched that amount. Matsumoto also reached out to a number of collision repair shops and friends in the state to contribute to the program.
“This was a grassroots effort,” said Chess. “The next thing you know we covered the cost. She got everything on her list and then some.”
Kent Automotive donated 10 air hoses, three drill bit indexes, and five sets of shears in conjunction with the March Taylor Fund to help support the community college.
“The benefit of supporting an educational program like this is to promote the collision industry and generate more interest surrounding this as a viable career path for young men and women,” said Ashley Lucenti, the Western U.S. regional sales director for Kent Automotive. “The success of these young men and women is important to all of us and the evolution of our industry.”
Lucenti said she is new to the industry but in the short time she has worked for Kent Automotive she has observed many good ideas on how to better support one another as well as the industry as a whole and looks forward to seeing some of these ideas come to fruition.
Meanwhile, Spence said that with all of the generous donations of tools and equipment, she will continue to develop the program at Honolulu Community College.
She tells her students to remain in school, learn everything they can and ask a lot of questions.
“I tell them that if it is something you really believe in, go for it,” said Spence. “I did and it worked out just fine. Don’t let anyone ever tell you no because they will.”
For more information about the March Taylor Memorial Fund, visit https://www.marchtaylormemorial.org.