Training Techs: A Guide for the Do-It-Yourselfer

By: Mark Claypool, President of Mentors At Work

Our workforce is incredibly knowledgeable, skilled and talented. But this didn't just happen. Someone had to train them; someone had to be their instructor or mentor.

The ways people learned the craft are probably as varied as the number of techs out there. Schools trained many, but probably not as many as you might think - probably only about 25 percent or so. Others followed in their father's footsteps. Still others had an interest in the field and were lucky enough to hook up with an experienced tech who was skilled enough to transfer his knowledge.

So just how long does it take to learn this industry?
Good question. To find the answer, I sought input from many sources. Interestingly enough, while it's easy to get all the input you could ever want on topics like cycle time, diminished value, insurance relations, DRPs, etc., very few seemed willing - or able - to answer how long it takes to train new techs. It gets even more difficult when trying to nail down how long it takes in relation to learning specific skills and competencies.

The input I did receive was well-thought-out, field-tested information and should give this industry some insight regarding about how long it takes to train techs. But because we're dealing with human beings, there's no set answer to this question. The best I can do is give you a range. Most trainees will fall within the range, while a few others may beat the clock a bit and others may take longer. It all depends on the position(s) you're training for and the people you're training.

"I'm not 100 percent behind the idea of training everyone to become a journeyman," says Tony Passwater, president of AEII, a consulting, training and system-development company in Indianapolis, Ind. "I believe much more in position training to accomplish a skill set that will benefit the shop and the master tech (mentor). In my classes, I've done hands-on exercises to show how to get an entry-level person with no experience to be productive in any department within 90 days, paralleling much of what's been created in the Mentors At Work system. The key is to define what you're going to train in a logical time frame, make the selected mentor aware of his responsibilities and time frame, and make the new hire aware of what's expected."

Bob Medved - State Farm's senior claims instructor, Learning and Development - agrees that a mentor system is needed to train and retain employees.

"Beyond first-year techs, individual employee education must continue in order to get them to the next level," says Medved. "This means repair facilities must have in place meaningful continuing education, training and mentoring programs. Employees who feel the next level is unattainable will inadvertently migrate to an employer who can get them there - or leave the industry altogether."Medved and State Farm serve together with 18 other business partners, five local collision repair businesses and the Philadelphia School District on a program called "Service Learning."

"This program is aimed at developing qualified entry-level collision techs who can be productive from day one of employment," says Medved. To accomplish this, agreed-upon learning standards must be met by the student prior to graduation.

Based on a 2001 I-CAR Education Foundation survey of the repair industry, the various partners agreed that an entry-level technician should possess the following four basic skill sets:

1. R&I bolted parts.
2. Minor collision repair.
3. Prep for paint.
4. Final detail.

Instead of schools creating a combo-tech graduate (i.e. knowledgeable about many things but masters of nothing), this Service Learning program attempts to help the school system understand what standards are necessary today for a graduate to become employed in the local community.

"The collision repair industry would be much further ahead if these standards (any standards) could be agreed upon and required for entry-level techs," says Medved.

Part of the problem is what ASE currently requires for school certification. (We understand that modifications may be on the way that are a positive step forward.) The ASE/NATEF task list suggests nearly 350 skills and tasks that are to be taught during 1,110 hours (over two years) of instruction in a school. Some specialization is allowed, but at best - given what the I-CAR Education Foundation's survey says shops are looking for - it's too broad a set of standards to produce entry-level employees who can step in and help the shop make money from day one.

According to the ASE certification process for schools through NATEF, individual areas of training must currently have the following minimum hours of instruction/lab time:

a. Structural Analysis & Damage Repair 260
*b. Non-Structural Analysis & Damage Repair 240*
c. Mechanical & Electrical Components 240
d. Plastics & Adhesives 30
e. Paint & Refinishing 340
Total Hours 1,110

*One hundred (100) hours of GMAW (MIG) welding is required for certification. It may be included either in Structural Analysis and Damage Repair or in Non-Structural Analysis and Damage Repair.

To address this, Ron Ray, executive director of the I-CAR Education Foundation (one of the industry partners in the Service Learning program) says the PACE + SP3 program was created, taking 54 baseline skills out of the NATEF task list. (See chart titled, Pace + SP3 Task List.)

"Assuming a two-year secondary school program, we cherry-picked 53 tasks from the non-structural/damage repair and structural/damage repair areas, and one from the plastics and adhesives area," says Ray. "These tasks prepare the student to perform tasks that relate to R&R bolted parts, prep for paint, final detailing and minor dent repair.

"We encourage instructors to ensure that the students who'll be working as interns during the summer before their senior year have learned all of the 54 tasks in a competency-based manner - and not just by watching a video or group demonstration. My estimate is that the instructor needs about 360 student contact hours to achieve this.

"These select tasks allow the student to work on both sides of the shop and possibly determine how they may wish to specialize - unless they wish to become a combo tech, which is becoming a dying breed in the larger shops. In the senior year, the students may wish to specialize, assuming the program can accommodate that or continue to progress with learning more advanced tasks."We think the PACE + SP3 program is a positive step forward, but what about the three new collision industry hires out of four who come from sources other than a school? Mentors at Work, another partner in the Service Learning program, has suggested ranges (shown below) that shops can expect when following a structured, in-house apprenticeship program. The center column gives a summary of the tasks necessary to perform that job function. The time in the right column is the approximate time it'll take to learning that task. Just remember that people are individuals so times will vary, plus each in-house trainer or mentor will have a different ability to train others so this creates a variable as well.

The job titles are sequenced according to difficulty. Mentoring a Painter's Assistant is much easier and takes much less time than training a Body Tech "A" level. The highest technical level is a combination of Body Tech "A" and Frame Tech "A." This would be a master technician capable of reconstructing literally anything on any vehicle.

Mentors At Work Task Lists and Times

Job Description Task Competency Time
Painter's Assistant Preparing, sanding, priming, masking, removing trim 3-6 mos
Body Assistant R&R parts, fix small dents 3-6 mos
Frame/Unibody Asst. Loads car, removes parts 3-6 mos
Body Tech "B" All but structural and heavy hits 1-2 yrs
Painter All of the above plus paint match/spray 2 yrs
Body Tech "A" Structural repair and light, moderate and heavy hits 2-3 yrs
Frame Tech "A" Loads, removes, pulls frame/unibody 1-2 yrs

Erick Bickett and Rusty Rauls from FIX Auto also shared with me the information they use to set employee development expectations and to determine pay increases based on annual performance. Fix Auto uses this for accountability purposes and provides incremental pay increases based on actual performance and competence. Check out this information in the sidebars, "FIX Auto's Body Tech Time Expectations" and "FIX Auto's Painter Time Expectations."

These guidelines from FIX Auto and the Mentors at Work on-line system are two of the very best "road maps" for training new people, showing mentors what they need to teach and apprentices what they'll be learning. All of this is terrific information - if you do something with it. Unfortunately, too many in this industry aren't terribly concerned about how long it takes to train new people. They're content to steal away experienced techs from other shops.

But, as we watch the most progressive shops having success training their own or moving students they hire from schools up the ladder, they're creating a shop and management culture that's superior to the "average" shop - making it harder and harder for competitors to steal employees from them.

Sure, it takes time and commitment to train new people, but what's a new production person worth to you in the long-term? And what's it going to cost you in the long term if you don't institute a structured, in-house apprenticeship program?


Writer Mark Claypool is president of Mentors at Work and the executive director of the National Auto Body Council. He's the former executive director of the I-CAR Education Foundation and the former director of development for Skills USA/VICA.


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