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Tips on what to offer students, employees & customers to fill tech gap, run successful business

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Associations | Business Practices | Collision Repair
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Four speakers at the Collision Industry Conference (CIC)’s January meeting in Palm Springs said shops and other businesses in the industry need to focus on hands-on training, job placement right out of school, mentorships, employee appreciation, and great customer service to run successful businesses that recruit and retain employees.

Newgate School Operations Manager Todd Grothe said the school’s Auto Body Training program takes about a year to complete and since it began 45 years ago has had a 100% job placement rate. Ten to 15 students go through the program at a time to ensure enough one-on-one instruction time with each of them. Shop tours are part of the program so students can get an idea of what the work will be like.

At around the nine-month mark for each student, once Grothe has an idea of what kind of shop work environment each might fit in as collision technicians with their individual skill sets, he begins looking for jobs available in the area they live in.

“These days, every shop is hiring,” he said. “Every shop is looking for them [collision technicians] and the shops really like our students because they’ve been working for a year already. They’ve already broke their first bolts. They’ve already taken a bumper cover off the car and left all the hardware on the floor and they got to put it back together. We try to let them get all those first mistakes and get that out of the system. Hopefully, they get a lot of them.”

Todd Grothe and Dara Goroff

The cars that students work on are donated to the school and then sold at auction. The money made from the sales is used toward funding the school’s programs. There is also an Auto Mechanics Training program. Students attend tuition-free and when they graduate are given a toolbox full of the tools they’ll need to be entry-level technicians.

I-CAR Planning & Industry Talent Programming Vice President Dara Goroff shared more details about the group’s new talent programming initiative that is in the beginning stages of creation and is slated to be past the pilot stage by the beginning of Q2 2023. The program will teach assembly, disassembly, plastic repair, and small dent repair prep for refinish. Support for students in the program will be offered through apprenticeships and mentors. Shops will also be able to learn about human resources best practices to ensure they’re “top-notch employers,” Goroff said.

“Not only are employers desperate for talent but those of us who are the driving public who tend to get in collisions are also desperate for the technician talent crisis to be solved,” she said. “It’s [I-CAR program] meant to really educate not only entry-level techs, because those who are out there who may join our industry may not even know we have an industry. We really want to be able to reach guidance counselors and parents and those who have influence, not only over the students who may be joining a program or joining a shop, but also those who are career changers.”

There will be four pillars of the program: talent attraction and curriculum for schools and shops, HR best practices, mentorship and apprenticeship guidelines, and grants and funding. The grants and funding piece will start later this year.

“The thing that we’re learning from our school partners is… 70% of those seeking employment today do things a little bit differently and they want to learn differently,” Goroff said. “They want to work in teams. They want to take small snippets of knowledge that they glean from either video or from reading and put that into immediately a hands-on skill that they practice right away. And we are defining our curriculum and the work that we’re doing around the way that the younger learners learn and react.”

After students are trained and land jobs at shops, The Limitless Entrepreneur Founder Dave Luehr and Collision Advice CEO Mike Anderson shared tips on how to retain current employees.

David Luehr

Luehr said employers that want a “magnetic” business should keep five key elements in mind: meaningful work, acknowledgment, measurement, teamwork, and goal guidance.

“The best businesses out there are always working towards what we call a noble cause that can mean a lot of different things,” he said. “It could be something as simple as making someone’s day a little brighter, maybe with whimsical lighting, or it could be something a little bit bigger like the effect that your business is having on your community or how you’re affecting the world. The important thing to remember is that as leaders, it’s our job to connect the dots for our people — whether they’re sweeping floors, twisting wrenches, or preparing an estimate — that they are making a difference in someone else’s lives. That’s meaningful work.”

The best businesses take time and put effort into acknowledging their employees individually,” he added

“Acknowledgement doesn’t always mean praise either,” Luehr said. “Sometimes people just want to know how they’re performing so it could be through coaching… All of the highest-performing employees out there crave measurement. They want to know how they’re doing. That’s why outlier businesses make sure that every individual employee has a scorecard so they always know how they’re performing.”

Employees also want to participate in a team environment on projects rather than individually. Paired with advancing technology in vehicles, young people’s idea of a body shop work environment is more like a pit crew, he said.

“This is what your body shops should look like in the future — more of a pit crew mentality where you’ve got specialists doing certain aspects of the repair all together working as a team to win the race.”

Luehr recommends shops, and all businesses, get rid of any “bad apple” employees that are lagging and keeping the company from reaching their full potential.

Lastly, he said goal guidance, such as outlining a clear career path and through mentorships, is a must for business owners to provide. Shops that need help attracting employees should focus some time on writing good help wanted ads. He provided a QR code to access his free guide to writing effective help wanted ads:

Anderson said administrative staff at shops are overwhelmed with too many tasks nowadays from rental car updates, OEM training, and shop assignments, to handling emails, and more.

“If we don’t fix this, we’re going to lose people,” he said. “We have to embrace technology as an industry. We’ve got to quit beating up software companies when they roll out something and it’s not quite perfect because you sometimes got to start somewhere. …If we continue to hire people, this number starts to grow in our bottom line is erodes it.”

Mike Anderson

As for the technician shortage, Anderson said the issue isn’t recruitment; it’s a lack of good pay and benefits. He shared an example of a family member that works at Amazon making $100,000 a year having worked there less than five years, has his health insurance 100% paid by the company, and gets six weeks of paid time off a year. Restaurants are also paying more, including Chipotle which offers starting pay of $35,000 a year, Anderson said.

Businesses need to invest in soft skills training for their employees and show their appreciation for their work as well, according to Anderson. Exceptional customer service is also a must, which includes first learning what customers expect.

“Customers’ expectations of us is changing daily; second by second, minute by minute,” he said. “Ten years ago, the average consumer that came to our auto body shop compared us to other automotive industries and then six to seven years ago, everybody was talking about the Nordstrom’s experience. They compared us to Nordstrom’s… walk around the counter and give our business cards and shake their hands. Today’s consumers are comparing us to Amazon and Uber and Open Table, and all those things.

“Today’s collision repair center, today’s insurance carrier, today’s insurance agent, today’s dealership — we have to deliver an exceptional customer service experience. Why is that? So they will give us a good online review. …As other industries offer this and ease of doing business, they expect the same from us and they don’t want to hear are excuses about how we’re different. If you think about our time spent where the customers are a triangle, most of us spend, at the top of the triangle, zero to five minutes with a consumer in today’s world. We got to flip that upside down and we have to spend more time with the consumer.”

Online reviews are important to drive business because today’s consumers want social proof they can trust from former customers or endorsed by celebrities to make sure they take they go to reputable businesses. Consumers today are experiencing survey fatigue and want instantaneous engagement, too, Anderson said.

“We need to stop doing things the way we’ve done it,” Anderson said. “And we need to open up our minds to create a more modern customer service experience for our customers. I’m not saying CSI surveys are bad but I’m saying our online reviews are better. …as an industry need to think about that.

“Forty-three percent of accidents today occur outside of normal business hours, Monday through Friday 8-5. Prior to COVID, that was 32%. …As a collision repairer, we must have a digital presence 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Why? Because the shop that has that digital presence where the consumer can engage with them outside of normal business hours is the shop that will position themselves not just to win but to dominate.”

Lastly, Anderson reiterated the importance of safety inspections during collision repairs from seatbelts to advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS), brake pedals, steering columns, and varying parts of the body depending on the collision type.

“I believe that as an industry, we are filling the consumers and that we have a moral and ethical obligation to resolve an issue,” he said. “That is the single biggest friction point in our industry. And we’ve got to quit sweeping it under the rug and that is called safety inspections.”

Every time safety inspections aren’t conducted — whether they seem necessary or not — shops, OEMs, and insurers run the risk of undiscovered damage that could impact passengers. And it should be noted that the liability for any injuries or deaths that occur from damage that should’ve been discovered will be put on the last shop that worked on the vehicle.

CIC’s next meeting will be held on April 12 from 12:30-5:30 p.m. and April 13 from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the Omni Richmond Hotel in Richmond, Virginia. Registration is required to attend. To register and to view the agenda, visit CIC’s website.


Featured image credit: NickyLloyd/iStock

All other photos taken by Lurah Lowery during CIC’s Jan. 19, 2023 meeting. 

More information

Technician shortage solution not just a matter of recruiting students

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