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  Management Feature

How to Attract, Motivate, Retain Good Employees

Posted 8/11/2005
Tony Passwater

"Today, we are faced with a greater challenge than ever before. It's not the changing vehicle technology, insurer relationships, or even equipment and products we use, but it is the immediate need for quality people to enter our industry so that we have the human resources to repair vehicles."

Does this opening sum up what we are facing in the automotive service industry? Most will agree that this is a critical concern for today and beyond. However, this statement was made at a national industry meeting in 1988!

The problem is we have a tendency to talk about it, complain about it, and sometimes worry about it, but in the end, we do very little about it. At times we may even feel that there is nothing we can do. But in reality, there is a great deal we can all do to improve this picture. It is our problem, and it is also our responsibility to fix it.

We Are Not Alone

Does it help that these problems of personnel shortages and such are not just limited to our industry? Just about every skilled trade faces the same crisis. We are in a heated competition with other industries to attract new people to automotive service. But many still don't realize it.

There are staggering statistics about the number of technicians who leave our industry each year. The following statistics are based on the collision repair industry. In 2004, the I-CAR Education Foundation Survey found:

  • 9.1 percent (17,895) of technicians left the industry
  • 15.3 percent (30,289) of technicians changed employers
  • The average age of a technician was 37.8
  • Less than 1 percent of technicians are female

It is pretty disconcerting to see more than 17,000 technicians out of 197,965 leave our industry entirely.

Where Do New Employees Come From?

Most of our new hires come from "raiding" the competition. In fact, we should get a national award for recycling! In some areas of the country, it is like musical chairs every month or quarter. Certainly another concern is that we are all pulling from the same pool, which is almost exclusively male. There is no truth to the opinion that it requires a male to perform the repairs on vehicles today. Even in the collision or heavy mechanical industries, brute strength is not a requirement. More than 95 percent of work done on a vehicle can be performed by any trained person - male or female.

Another important consideration is that all the vocational schools combined in the United States produce approximately 6,300 students to enter our industry on an annual basis. The vocational system only filled about 37 percent of the openings created by people leaving the industry. To attract and recruit new employees, you must become actively involved in your vocational system if there is one. If you don't, who will?

Perception ... Reality?

I have taught a number of seminars on this very subject and always ask the audience with a show of hands how many have children. I ask them to keep their hands up while I continue to ask, "How many of you have children who are entering the industry?" In almost all cases, the number of remaining hands dwindles to only a few.

There is no easy solution to this. But for our industry to survive, we must be able to continue the family-owned business entity and pass on both technical and management skills.

Attracting Good Candidates

To attract good candidates, your company's presentation must also be considered. Presentation refers to how your business looks, runs and feels to an outsider. Do you have the appearance of a state-of-the-art mechanical or collision repair facility? Or does the dust, grease and clutter present a stereotypical picture of our industry?

Another important component in attracting good candidates is to always be looking. Don't wait until a crisis forces you to hire the first person who can fog up a mirror. Evaluate your work force monthly and determine its strengths and weaknesses.

Career or Temp Job?

Part of motivating and retaining good employees is distinguishing between whether a position you have is a career or a temporary job. If you don't know which it is, it will certainly be unclear to your employee as well.

Many studies show the No. 1 reason employees leave a position is that they didn't feel they knew what was expected of them. There is a saying I use often - I call it the "Law of Communication:"

  • If you don't tell someone what you want, it's likely it won't be what you expect.
  • If you don't write down what you want, it's likely no one will remember the same.
  • If you don't train for what you want, it's likely no one will know how.
  • If you don't have incentives tied in, it's likely no one will have time to do it.

Richard Flint has a good definition of communication: "If both participants do not understand the same thing ... it is not communication." Simply put, do you provide a clear path for candidates/new hires to understand their role and expectations within your company? Most do it by verbal communication and believe that is sufficient. As the Law of Communication says, you will not get the results you expect consistently.

For technicians in the collision industry, there is a national mentorship program available through Mentor@Work ( that I highly recommend. The key difference between a mentorship program and an apprenticeship program is that the latter is usually managed by an association or governmental body. The mentorship program is an internal program designed for your business.

A good mentorship program outlines the technical skills and tasks needed for each position of the collision or mechanical repair industries. It also trains and manages the mentors and their relationship to apprentices. This is a key component since many previous mentorships failed because the skills needed to manage, train and coach an apprentice were not skills our best techs possessed (or were even interested in obtaining).

Human Resource Management

In addition to a mentorship, the need for implementing more human resource management procedures into the business is often found during my visits to shops worldwide. Many shop owners and managers today are simply "promoted" technicians. They have not received adequate training on business or human resource management except through the "School of Hard Knocks." This can certainly be an expensive method.

It is important to manage your people. Managers should be trained in important human resources areas. One that is critical is employee evaluations and appraisals. How often do you evaluate your employees formally? I have seen many business owners evaluate employees only when they are about to "fire" them.

Pay Systems and Benefits

Benefits are also a vital consideration in attracting and retaining good people into our industry, but many shop owners/managers think it is strictly the paycheck. Research done many times over has proven this otherwise. Benefits also have become an extremely critical concern for businesses, especially in regard to health care costs (see "Health Insurance Can Help Attract, Retain Employees" on page 37).

When asked, almost all staff members who left the repairer ranks say the reason they left was for a better work environment and benefits.

There are a number of programs out there that can put money back into the employee's pockets, which have minimal costs to you as the employer. They include:

  • Pre-tax cafeteria plans for medical and child care expenses
  • Medical discount plans (not health insurance but discounted services)
  • All of these can reduce costs to the employees, which translates to more disposable income.

The tool reimbursement programs actually reduce the company's expenses as well. I suggest you research tool reimbursement programs. There is a good informational Web site at www.tool that provides a clear understanding of how it can be beneficial, both in costs and retaining good employees.

ASA offers two benefit providers - Pro-Check National and Solutions Now! -that provide tool reimbursement programs. Both companies provide ASA members with special pricing on their tool expense reimbursement programs.

One important and underutilized benefit is training. We have analyzed facilities worldwide, and too often the commitment to training is more of a verbal one. Companies say they "train their employees," but when their training is reviewed it is not supported with actual expenses. In other words, I often see less than .5 percent of sales budgeted for employee training.

Employee performance evaluations, pay plan, incentive system, training and benefits combine to attract, motivate and retain employees. Along with clear communication and a good company presentation, this will certainly improve your market area and organization. What's stopping you?

Editor's note: This article is one of several management articles that will be contributed to AutoInc. this year by Automotive Management Institute (AMI) instructors. To learn more about AMI, its courses and instructors, visit

Tony Passwater is president of AEII, a consulting, training and system-development company based in Indianapolis. He can be contacted at (317) 290-0611, ext. 88, or at Visit his Web site at for more information.

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