November, 2003

  By: Tim Sramcik, Angi Semler
  Automotive Body Repair News

Manning the Future


The next time you're thinking about your shop's future, consider what might be the single most serious challenge to its long-term survival. What comes to mind? The local and national economy? Labor rates? The cost of keeping pace with technology? Strong-arming from insurers? Competition from consolidators? All good responses, but you're overlooking the one key issue that threatens your shop and the collision repair industry at their cores-gray hair. Gray hair? This is a joke, right?

Hardly. Look at your own employees and then consider the aging of America's work force. This reality is why mentoring programs play a crucial role in recruiting new technicians to replace those that are, or soon will be, leaving the industry.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median age of the American worker has increased to 40. This means that one-half of today's labor pool will qualify for retirement in the next 25 years. In its own way, the collision repair industry is graying even faster.

In 2001, the I-CAR Education Foundation released its Snapshot of the Industry survey, which it conducts every three years. While I-CAR determined the average age of an industry technician to be a young 36.3 years old, it noted that the average age had increased almost a full year since 1995. The survey also discovered that the overall percentage of technicians in the younger age groups was declining while middle-age groups were growing, and the number of techs in the oldest percentiles remained steady.

According to I-CAR statistics, 33 percent of collision industry professionals are between 36 and 45 years old. Fifteen percent are between 46 and 55, and five percent are 56 to 65. If you consider 65 to be retirement age, then 53 percent of today's collision repair workforce will retire by 2030, and the single largest age block of collision repairers (36 to 45 year olds) will retire within nine years of one another.

Just as significant, since 1995 the number of 26 to 35 year olds working in the industry dropped notably from 37 percent to 31 percent, and the number of people under 21 dropped from 9 percent to a meager 4 percent.

Taken all together, these figures show that not only is the collision labor pool aging, the number of young people either entering or remaining in the industry is dropping substantially. In the mood for more bad news? During the 12 months prior to the survey, more than 24,000 collision technicians-or 11.2 percent of the work force-left the trade, outpacing the 9.4 percent reported in 1998. Of the technicians who remained, 62 percent had been with their current employer for 5 years or less, compared with the 52 percent of the entire U.S. work force (males more than 20 years old) with job tenures of 5 years or less.

A Big Problem, Few Solutions
Not a pretty picture-an aging, shrinking workforce, the vast majority of which migrates to new workplaces every few years. Unless something is done to remedy this situation, shops that plan to remain in business during the next several decades could find themselves trying to survive in the most dreadful of business conditions: forever fighting to retain their core employees while watching more than one-half of their most experienced, valuable technicians depart into retirement with few trained people to replace them.

For now, there aren't very many solutions. If you're hoping that tech school graduates could somehow fill the employment void, think again. "These graduates account for only 25 percent of new workers in the industry," says Mark Claypool, president and CEO of Mentors at Work, a company dedicated to helping the automotive repair industry establish employee training programs. "And there's absolutely no reason to believe this will change."

As for the thousands of new employees who enter the industry every year from other occupations, the 18,365 new collision repairers I-CAR counted in 2001 aren't even enough to offset annual industry losses of more than 24,000-much less mass retirements.

Before you begin thinking that your shop could survive a severe labor shortage simply by hiring techs away from other shops, consider the consequences. In order to survive, other shops would also have to poach new employees-your employees. Is your business rich enough to compete in those circumstances?

Consider also how this scenario would affect quality and reputation throughout the industry, not to mention the damage it could do to unity and fraternity in the collision repair field. One of the few solid solutions to the industry's ticking employment time bomb is mentoring: hiring in new employees and training them on the job. While mentoring is a task far easier talked about than done-as evidenced by the collision industry's dismal 70 percent failure rate with the practice-when conducted correctly it can produce remarkable results. Using professional help now available throughout the industry, shops running the gamut from small to large have successfully implemented mentoring programs and begun producing their own next generation of technicians. Ready to join their ranks? Read on. Odds are you can't afford not to.

Starting with Structure
So what makes a mentoring program successful? Mentors at Work, founded by Claypool following his tenure as executive director of the I-CAR Education Foundation, offers a good functional example of how any productive mentoring program should operate. It all begins with a solid plan and lots of structure. For fees starting at $1,295 a year per facility (personal training is included) Mentors at Work provides Web-based training modules supported by audio CDs that help shops plan, build and manage their own mentoring systems. The Mentors program can be broken down into three processes.

The first identifies and tests participants for the proper traits and talents to fill three specific roles: program coordinator (to oversee the program), mentor and apprentice. Next, the program provides specific steps and guidance describing what should be taught. Finally, the program supplies methods for the participants to evaluate one another, as well as the overall effectiveness of the program itself.

Claypool developed this program after watching shops make the same mistakes, time and again, when attempting to train new hires. "The basic problem is that they don't have a real system or structure in place that helps the trainee to be successful," he says. "Most of the time, new people are thrown to the wolves. They're expected to go through the same difficult rites of passage as previous workers without anyone truly looking after or helping them."

Mentors at Work provides what can best be described as a roadmap-a detailed guide-for program participants. That way, everyone, especially the trainee, knows what is expected. Constant testing and evaluations ensure that progress is being made in specific areas and that coordinators, mentors and apprentices communicate throughout the process. Using the program, shops can train high-quality techs in as little as two to three years, depending upon the schedule the shop wants.

"The main advantage with Mentors at Work is that none of us is working in the dark," says Bill Jones, operations manager for the 911 Collision Centers in Tucson, Ariz. "We all know what to do. The apprentice is given a defined list of tasks, so he knows exactly what he should be doing and needs to accomplish. Then there's accountability. We meet every two weeks to test our progress and evaluate the system. As the program coordinator even I get evaluated, so I know how I'm doing."

After being a part of previous efforts at his shop to implement mentoring, efforts that produced 25 percent success rates, Jones remarks, "I wish we had had this program years ago," he says. "It could have allowed a lot of other guys to succeed." He also notes that the program is producing marked results earlier than expected because his apprentice is farther along in his training than originally estimated.

J.C. Baccus, a technician and mentor for Caliber Collision Center in Chino, Calif., echoes the same sentiment for the mentoring program at his shop, which recently signed onto the Mentors at Work program. "I'm amazed at how much we've accomplished so soon. During the first two weeks, we lost production hours because we were training," he says. "Since then, we're right back up to where we should be, and we'll be able to increase our output soon."

Selecting Mentors and Apprentices
Aside from featuring a solid structure that helps apprentices be successful, the most difficult task in operating a mentoring program is finding capable people to serve as program supervisors, and most particularly as mentors and apprentices.

Claypool points out that mentoring programs are often doomed to failure by poor choices of mentors. "Usually, shops first try assigning the trainee to their fastest worker," he says. "Of course, this doesn't work because the shop fails to determine if that tech has the patience, desire and talent to be a mentor. When this attempt fails, the shop next tries assigning the trainee to their best-quality tech. Once again, they don't take the time to find out if this tech has what it takes to mentor. If that tech can't teach, it's over for the trainee."

Finding a capable mentor is further complicated by the fact that most techs work on commission, so taking time out to teach means losing work time and wages. This means that shops must first find a way to compensate their mentors for lost wages. Even with adequate compensation, however, shops have typically faced a lot of difficulty and resistance when trying to identify someone willing to teach.

Capable techs often have no interest in training and may refuse to do the work. This situation can be remedied by offering bonuses or other incentives to those willing to do the work. If that doesn't work, Claypool suggests making training a requirement in the hiring of any new techs. "Ask job candidates if they're willing to teach," he says.

When you do finally locate some perspective candidates, you'll need to determine if they have the ability to train-especially if they've never done any mentoring before. Mentors at Work helps its clients here by providing an online test that gauges a participant for those traits that Mentors believes an effective trainer should have.

Among the questions, the test asks participants to evaluate themselves as effective communicators and asks them how much enthusiasm they have for training others. The test also includes questions on the participant's ability to evaluate work and queries them on their ability to be patient and work with others. Patience, interest and knowledge are all put at a premium.

The Mentors program similarly offers perspective apprentices an online test that gauges personal qualities that could determine their success in the program. Once again, participants are queried on their interest in collision repair work, willingness to work hard and communicate.

Surprisingly, it can be even more difficult to find a quality apprentice than it can be to find an effective mentor. As the I-CAR study showed, fewer people are entering the collision industry. Claypool cautions against simply looking for candidates at tech schools because their training programs are sometimes out of date. (Mentors at Work provides clients with evaluations of trade schools).

Claypool believes the richest pool of apprentice candidates is actually made up of people in their late twenties who have reached their occupational peak at other jobs, for example, in the service industry. "There are a lot of older candidates who are working as managers at quick lubes or tire shops who have reached their salary and professional peaks," he says. "Our industry has a lot to offer them. Plus, they bring with them more maturity and experience so they are more apt to succeed."

How should you attract these people to the collision industry? Claypool suggests holding open houses at least once a year to bring attention to job opportunities in the industry. Point out that the average annual income for a tech is $41,268 and that the top 10 percent of techs make an average $72,230. You can also emphasize the benefits your shop offers, particularly if you offer more or different benefits than your competitors. And don't forget to mention other incentives, such as the fact that there is a demand for skilled collision repairers and they get to spend their days working on cars. (This has a real appeal to those individuals who have no desire to hold an office job.)

Return On Investment
If mentoring programs seem to work so well, then why not start a mentoring program at your shop and help train your next generation of technicians? For a lot of people in the industry, there's one compelling argument against mentoring: no return on the investment (ROI). After all, what if your shop is the only one around with a program? You could be spending time and money training people who might end up going elsewhere, perhaps helping a competing business.

Claypool offers the following response. "Mentoring and retention should be part of the same overall program," he says. "Shops can retain their trainees if they also work on improving their business culture by creating a better work environment. Shops need to pay more attention to human resources and focus on their employees, something they just haven't done in the past. When shops make their employees feel important and focus on their employees, retention rates go up."

Simply put, employees who are fairly compensated and well treated are likely to stay at a job. Just as successful mentoring programs focus on their apprentices as human beings, successful shops-those with a satisfied, productive work force-focus on the needs of their employees. (An aggressive retention program is another way to deal with labor shortages. Recall the I-CAR study and the 11.2 percent of techs who leave the collision repair profession each year. Employee-friendly, productive work environments might persuade a lot of these people to remain.)

Still not entirely convinced? Teresa Kostick, owner of All Line CARSTAR in Bolingbrook, Ill., which implemented Mentors at Work one year ago, provides this compelling reason to start mentoring. "We were interested in mentoring because we want to bring in people and groom them our own way," she says. "We want to bring new people into the industry and develop the skill sets that we see as necessary. Mentoring is here to stay. In the future I'm not hiring any technicians from outside. We'll train all our new people ourselves."

Mentoring may also create new opportunities within businesses. Jones says the tech who volunteered to be a mentor at the 911 Collision Centers did so because he wanted to work in management and realized that he had to have someone to replace him before he could make that jump. Jones's apprentice was a detailer at the shop who wanted to be a body tech. Mentoring will help both employees meet their goals-and stay in the industry.

One final point to consider: Because the success of a shop is linked to the quality of its workforce, a growing, high-quality workforce also may be the key to expanding your business to a larger shop or to multiple locations.

Whatever the case may be, you're going to need a new employee at some point. The single best way-perhaps the only way-for you to hire the employee you want, who can do the job you want, when you want, is to grow your own. Preparing for that need now can save you from a lot of gray hair down the road.


Copyright 2004 Mentors At Work, L.L.C. All Rights Reserved.