We've all heard it said throughout the last few years: It's getting harder and harder to find quality, certifiable technicians in this industry. Throughout the last decade, associations and committees around the country have tackled the problem in a variety of ways and with some success, but the problem still has yet to be conquered.

At ABRN, we're doing our part to get the word out that the well of skilled professionals is running dry. We invited several industry leaders from across the country to share their thoughts and present you with their strategies for alleviating this deficit. We feel the leaders here represent the industry well. The combined experience of these participants add up to more than 100 years in the industry and the resumes include company executives, association directors and instructors of autobody repair and refinish.

Here's what Mark Claypool told us…

Where are shops finding entry-level technicians?

Mark Claypool: According to the I-CAR Education Foundation's survey, only about one out of four [entry-level technicians] come from schools, so the rest are coming in off the street with who knows what experience, knowledge, aptitude or attitude.

The problem is, most shops aren't "finding" entry-level technicians, they are finding experienced techs from each other's shops. They're playing a game of musical chairs with certain, experienced techs jumping shop to shop, demanding free agent status, signing bonuses and more. This does nothing to solve the long-term employment challenges this industry faces. Shops run ads in the newspaper and are unhappy with the response they receive. Entry-level candidates usually find the shop rather than the other way around.

How can repair facilities start their own recruitment programs?

Claypool: Apprentice candidates are all around us. We as an industry just need to open our eyes and see them. We at Mentors @ Work tell our clients that everyone you meet, male or female, is a potential candidate. Typical places to look are not to the unemployed, but to those who recently have left the armed services, recent high school graduates, grocery stores, lube shops, gas stations, fast food restaurants, parts stores, detail shops, tire and muffler shops, yard services, janitorial businesses and so on. These are all places where people have limited earning potential. These people may have aptitude but don't realize that we have paid training and earning potential that averages in the upper $30,000s and can pay much more, plus benefits, for those who work hard and are highly skilled. We suggest that shops create recruitment flyers that state these facts and highlight why their shop is the preferred place to come to work in the community. We suggest that managers carry these flyers with them at all times and give them out as opportunities present themselves. We simply must do a better job of marketing ourselves.

Are there innovative programs to attract young people to the collision repair field?

Claypool: One of the best programs I know of is the Coordinating Committee for Automotive Repair (CCAR) Automotive Career Education Day, held in October each year. They reach several thousand schools and more than 200,000 students each year. They have sponsors who work closely with the program and reap the rewards. As with anything, you reap what you sow. More information on Career Education Day can be found at CCAR's Web site, www.ccar-careerlink.org. Many of our Mentors @ Work clients take advantage of National Mentoring Month in January. They send out local press releases announcing their participation in National Mentoring Month and recognize their internal mentors and existing apprentices. It gives them a chance to highlight the fact that the collision repair field is a desirable choice and that they, specifically, have career opportunities available-and paid training.

What works to attract techs? Pay? Benefits? Career ladder? The desire to work on cars?

Claypool: Pay and benefits are certainly important. They have to be competitive with other shops and with other industries and services in the area. Having a career ladder is important to shops that have teams in place. But when attracting new candidates, having a professional system to take a new person from entry-level to a productive tech-an "earn while you learn" program-is critical to sealing the deal and enhancing a shop's long-term chances of retaining a new hire.

What or who is deterring young people from becoming involved in automotive careers?

Claypool: Image is a key factor. It's the main point of focus that the National Auto Body Council (NABC) is working on. The public thinks our industry is less than desirable, that we have nothing but dirty, dead-end jobs. Our image feeds peer pressure not to be associated with the auto industry, especially the collision side, the dreaded "body shop." In many cases, we are our own worst enemy. Too many shops look dirty. They don't know how to portray a positive image-or don't care to try. They also don't make a good first impression with the customer who walks in the door. Those poor image shops affect us all. In addition to image, schools are not our great ally either. The vast majority focus on college prep and send only those who are not bright enough or those who are discipline problems to the vocational technical schools. Many administrators are evaluated on the percentage of students they send to college. Not good for our industry. Parents only know what they see, and generally that's not good. The NABC suggests hosting open houses for students, school administrators, guidance counselors, teachers, parents and the public to attend and see what today's collision repair industry is all about.

Are recruiters actively seeking women to train as collision repairers?

Claypool: No, for the most part, they aren't and the reasons are varied. Women represent less than 1 percent of our workforce. I am aware of a young female apprentice in Michigan who wanted to work in the collision repair field. She had no training or experience, just the strong desire to work on cars. She knocked on door after door and was turned away each and every time until she landed on the doorstep of one of her area's most progressive shops who saw in her a great attitude and desire to come to work, and learn as she went along. Two years later she is turning well over 100 hours a week. There are none so blind as those who will not see.

How are apprenticeship programs being used in the industry?

Claypool: For the most part, there are no true apprenticeship programs going on out there. Most shops hire a new person and pair them up with some experienced person in the shop and hope for the best. They fly by the seat of their pants. There is no plan, no proper selection of mentor candidates, no training of mentors on how to be good trainers, no training road map to follow and no tracking of the results. As a result, the turnover rate of new hires is somewhere around 70 percent. There are a few exceptions; some individual shops do a good job on their own. Some regional groups have good programs with schools. The only national programs that I am aware of that really have their acts together and are partnered with the most enlightened shops are the AYES program for dealership shops and Mentors @ Work. Both of these organizations provide a plan, provide mentor training, follow a training road map and track results. The I-CAR Education Foundation's new PACE +S/P3 program shows promise, too, especially with school partnerships.

What are employers/tech schools doing to recruit and accommodate the growing number of Spanish-speaking techs?

Claypool: I'm not aware of much of anything other than Mentors @ Work is considering translating its program learning modules and tracking system to Spanish. The demand for such a translated program is currently being studied. There may be other initiatives but I am not aware of them.

Does the increased amount of math and computer skills attract or drive people away from the industry?

Claypool: I don't think it has much bearing at all one way or the other. We don't have the luxury of multiple people knocking on our doors. Young people have grown up with a lifetime of exposure to computers, Nintendo, etc. Computers certainly do not intimidate them. As far as math goes, applied learning is the most effective way of mastering new things, so a good trainer can incorporate math into teaching without ever using the word "math."

What does the industry need-Money? Resources? Commitment?-to make the threat of a technician shortage pass?

Claypool: More than anything, this industry needs to follow a proven system for attracting, training and retaining entry-level employees. I see the most progressive shops in America doing this and having success. I also see way too many, in fact, the vast majority, doing the same old thing and getting the same old results. Only a system will provide the long-term solution to this challenge our industry faces. This will take study, and a change of the way shops do business day to day. Only those who embrace this change will get through it. The others will continue to play the losing game of musical chairs with experienced techs who have no real loyalty to their employer and are primarily in it for themselves. Those shops who intend to be competitive and grow over the next five or more years and beyond will be the ones who make the most positive steps in the area of human resources, and to do that, they will find or create a system to follow.

A special thanks to ABRN for the opportunity to contribute to this article.

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