Unique Collision Repair Training Program Shows Results

Students, instructors and employers involved with the Collision Engineering Program since its inception shared their experiences.

“This is the solution. We are here to tell you that it has worked for us," said Tiffany Silva of Accurate Auto Body in Richmond, CA.

Since 2020, a program in place at a handful of collision repair training programs at secondary schools across the country has taken a unique approach to increasing the quality---and hopefully, quantity---of new technicians entering the industry.

The Collision Engineering Program, largely funded initially by the Enterprise Holdings Foundation and subsequently joined by Ford Motor Company, trains collision repair students by rotating them every eight weeks between school and working in a shop.

Three years into the effort, which now involves seven schools, a panel of those involved with the program---students, instructors and shop employers---discussed what they see working about the program.

Amber Alley, manager of Barsotti’s Body and Fender in San Rafael, CA, said she’s been involved with the program for about three years, now working with her second student from Contra Costa College.

“Both have been so different personality-wise that it’s [led to] personal growth for me as a manager,” Alley said during the Collision Industry Conference (CIC) that took place in Las Vegas during SEMA week. “I think it’s made me better, more self-aware. You want to see these young people succeed. They’ve taken the first step. They have already identified this as being an industry that they want to pursue a career in. So there’s a call to action for us as shops. We have a problem, and we can complain about it, or we can look at this new idea and see if there’s something there.”

Alley said when she attended the graduation ceremony for her first student completing the program, there was a woman graduating from the program at the same time.

“I’ve been 30 years in a management position of some capacity in the industry, and I’ve never employed a woman technician,” Alley said. “That’s a problem, and I want to change that. I just don’t know that we can have the conversation about labor shortage if we don’t. I do feel the industry really is doing a really good job of isolating 50% of the population, just with its general culture. I think a program like this is exactly what we need to change that perception of the industry. It gives young women who want to enter the industry a very safe way to do that.”

Tech Says Program Worked for Her

Indeed, the CIC panel included a woman working in a shop after completing the Collision Engineering Program at College of Lake County in Illinois. Karina Badillo said the structure of the program contributed to her choosing the collision repair trade.

“When I was picking a career, I knew I wanted to be passionate about it, but I also knew I wanted to make an impact, and the trades have that to offer,” Badillo said. “When I first started college, I bounced around through welding and through automotive technology, but they didn’t have a program that was similar to this. Once I saw that there was the eight weeks on and off, and that you can really connect the bookwork to the actual hands-on experience that the real world has to offer, I noticed that the rest of the classes weren’t amounting to as much. I personally felt like I could grow more. I’m very focused on wanting to continue learning, and this program had that to offer, so I fell right in line with it.”

She knew what she hoped to find at the shop where she would be working during the program.

“I wanted to know that the shop was just as eager to learn about what was coming with the next [vehicle] models as I was to learn about the cars,” she said. “In school, we were always learning about [OEM] procedures and looking everything up and printing it out and making sure that everything was done the right way. I mean, these are really important things. We’re putting together a family’s second-biggest investment. So I wanted to make sure that I’m not going to be picking up bad habits.”

Having that in her mind didn’t necessarily result in a good fit with a shop at first, she said, but the program is a supportive environment for staying on course.

“I’m an example of [someone having] been in both a really good shop and one that was not so welcoming,” she said. “Instead of giving up, I was able to go back, I had a team [at the school] behind me, and they were able to help guide me into where I fit. I think someone told me it was like a puzzle, and you’re kind of looking for where you fit in to make that difference and make the photo complete.”

The Instructors’ Viewpoint

Octavio Cavazos, a collision repair instructor and department chairman at the College of Lake County, said his program has two cohorts of students: one that does all of its training at the school, and another in the Collision Engineering Program.

“The significant difference [with the Collision Engineering students] is how fast they are able to grow in their career,” Cavazos said. “There’s no difference between the two [groups] the first eight weeks. It isn’t until they enter the [shop] for that first week that they are able to see how all that learning they did for the first eight weeks is actually turning into hands-on skills.

"Once they come back for that second semester, after being out for that first internship, that’s when you see the light bulb turning on," Cavazos said. "That’s when they come back with more questions, more hunger for the knowledge. They want to learn. After that first semester, you have a completely new student cohort on your hands. You almost have to try to keep up with them.”

What do the instructors in these programs look for in the shops where students are placed?

“They generally have to be a certified shop,” said Laura Lozano, an instructor and chairman of the auto body department at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, CA. “We appreciate that, and look for engagement with I-CAR training, OEM training, and that they’re properly equipped. We do a lot of meeting with the shops and getting to know their culture, getting to know their technicians who would be mentors of our students. The biggest piece in all of this is finding an employer, a manager, who is open to going through this process with the student and with the college. We call it a triangle of communication between student, employer and the school, being able to meet the student where they are, as they evolve through the program. Understanding the individual student, their learning strengths and weaknesses, communication styles.”

‘This is the Solution’

Tiffany Silva of Accurate Auto Body in Richmond, CA, said her shop is working with its third student going through the Collision Engineering Program.

“This is the solution. We are here to tell you that it has worked for us,” she said at CIC. “The success of this program is something that we need to see nationwide, and then we will stop complaining about the shortage of techs.”

Silva said the help and support from Lozano and the other staff at Contra Costa College where the students are enrolled has been awesome.

“It is just so vital when I think about it,” Silva said. “When you hire someone off the street, you get that technician. When you hire a Collision Engineering student, you get a whole team behind that student. Even now that two of my students have graduated, Laura is still helping to coach them and still has a presence in our shop. She comes through and checks in and sees how they’re doing. And our third student has a connection with the other two students who have graduated. He sees [their] success.”

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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