How is Your Auto Body Shop Dealing with the Great Resignation?

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You thought we would be done with the pandemic by now, but like Al Pacino's character, Michael Corleone, said in The Godfather II, “Just when I thought I was out, they drag me back in!”

Will the effects of the pandemic always be a part of our lives? It sure looks like it.

There are still many questions we never had to deal with before, and many things we thought would be in our rearview mirrors by now. Are you prepared for the post-COVID work environment? Are you ready for a majority hybrid-remote office model? Are other shops trying to hire away some of your top people? Will some of your upper management take this opportunity to retire? Is it time to sell?

These are life-changing decisions and the time to make them is here.

We’re now entering the post-pandemic world and many of your employees have different opinions. While some of your crew is enthusiastically returning to work, others are reluctant and have concerns about hours, safety and other issues.

Regardless of whatever your employees think will happen next, body shop owners and managers are just happy to return to some level of normalcy after these 30 months. But, are things really back to normal---and what is normal now, anyway?

In many parts of the country, the shortage of qualified people got even worse during the pandemic. An MSO owner told me recently he could put 80 collision professionals to work immediately, if they existed. I would bet any shop out there right now could use a few more qualified people, as car counts rise and customers who were reluctant to bring their vehicles for repairs start showing up at their doors.

Poaching employees is a problem, especially in states like California and New York, and it will undoubtedly get worse within the next year or so, I believe. So, with motivating your crew and strengthening them more important than ever, here are some methods to help you retain your best employees.

The pandemic caused body shop owners and managers to centralize decision-making to be more efficient, pulling it into the leadership team without feedback from key stakeholders, like top technicians or the head painter. This was essential during the pandemic, but this will need to change to ensure long-term effectiveness and continued employee engagement.

One of the smartest ways to do this is to start inviting employees outside the leadership team and closer to the rest of the crew to participate in the decision-making process.

Some body shop owners said communication improved tremendously during the pandemic because it became mandatory. “People were no longer in the same room, so imparting communication changed," one owner said. "We became a Zoom culture, and in many cases, we became more comfortable with it and adapted.”

The pandemic created a virtual world, but unfortunately it won’t have much of an impact down the road in collision repair, because you can't fix cars via Zoom.

It means some employees who were sitting home for more than a year are going to undergo major changes, like commuting and spending less time with their families. Some people won’t adapt well and it may take a month or two to re-engage, so patience but accountability should play a role.

During the pandemic, many shop owners and managers decided to push employee communication to the sidelines. The idea was they should not focus on engagement, saying “We can’t ask our managers, techs, estimators and painters to do one more thing!” Stressed out employees were on their own and forced to navigate it all solo. Some quit and many were laid off, and even a few took early retirement or sold their shops to an MSO.

So now is the ideal time to reconnect with your top talent if you want to retain them. Post-COVID, your disengaged employees will start looking for a better deal elsewhere. Will the return to normal tempt your best people to pursue other options?

The best thing to do is to step up employee engagement and keep everyone in the fold. Turnover can seriously impede a body shop, and poaching can spread quickly. Joe Technician is happy at his new shop and the word is out they’re looking for more people, so a strong bond with your employees is more important now than ever.

Focus on retaining your female employees, because they are the most likely to switch or quit altogether. According to NPR, 865,000 women left the U.S. workforce---four times more than men---in just September last year.

“The coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc on households, and women are bearing the brunt of it,” the NPR study said. “Not only have they lost the most jobs from the beginning of the pandemic, but they are exhausted from the demands of childcare and housework---and many are now seeing no path ahead but to quit working.

Keep Millennials in your discussions. They’re focused on things such as diversity and inclusion, so keep them in the loop. The worst thing is to have them feeling like they’re not being heard. Let them play a role and watch them excel as people and leaders. To accommodate your younger crew members, keep your meetings short and sweet and create mechanisms to enable them to contribute.

It's a whole new game out there and those shops that can adapt will succeed, while others might encounter a never-ending carousel of new and returning employees.

The pandemic changed the rules, but many principles of employee communication are still the same. Try to keep stress levels low, keep your eyes open for changes within your team and proceed carefully, and you will be able to retain your people and avoid the pitfalls of the Great Resignation.

Ed Attanasio

Ed Attanasio is an automotive journalist and Autobody News columnist based in San Francisco.

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