A Brave New Mindset

Don’t just complain about the shortage of skilled collision repair professionals. Here’s what you can do about it.

Every industry needs to prepare for its next generation of employees, which, ideally, continually flows in. The collision repair industry currently faces an aging population in several ways. Not only are long-term employees retiring faster than young ones are being hired, but the technological advances on newer vehicles become standard so rapidly that current techs are struggling to stay on top of them.

“The architecture and materials that the new vehicles are incorporating are well past the current average level of knowledge, skills and equipment possessed by repairers, insurers, technical schools and most equipment suppliers,” says Mark T. Allen, manager of Collision Programs and Electric Vehicle Services for Audi of America.

And Aaron Schulenburg, executive director of the Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS) adds, “When we take in new members, we always ask, ‘What is the No. 1 challenge you face in the industry today?’ Ninety-five percent of the time, the response is, ‘I don’t have the people I need to perform the tasks at hand, and it’s only getting harder.’”

How can the industry attract the right people to the open jobs that are piling up, as well as ensure they know what they’re doing even with the industry’s rapidly evolving technology? According to Jeff Peevy, president of the Automotive Management Institute (AMi), “The immediate change that I see is the need to accept and acknowledge the role of learning.”

In Allen’s words, “It must start with the acknowledgement of the problem.” The problem is that as technology develops, technicians will need to adapt their skills. As much as the industry already has changed, there is definitely more to come. The need to learn new skills and use new equipment is not going away anytime soon. OEMs are continuing to develop more advanced technology.

According to Allen, “Alternative propulsion systems like hybrid and plug-in electric are here and will build quickly over the next eight years. But don’t believe this will be the end. There are many other forms under development.”

Regarding new developments and their effects on the repair industry, Schulenburg says, “For all the talk of the potential for autonomy, there has been little focus on whether the automotive industry, as a whole, is prepared for it – or the functional restoration for it in relationship to automotive repair.”

As Allen sees it, the industry is already behind. “The past two years of my life have been spent being questioned about pre- and post-[repair] scanning, something that we should have been doing as a normal course of business for years.” The current debate on the need for such scans is one issue that OEMs, repair shops and insurance providers haven’t agreed on yet.

Nick Notte, I-CAR’s senior vice president of Sales and Marketing, says, “Technicians need to be up-to-date on repair techniques that are increasingly model-specific in nature, whether under the hood or as part of the vehicle’s structure.”

Understanding so many differing techniques isn’t as much of a requirement for the industry as learning how to find and use the right tools and methods as the jobs arise. As Peevy notes, “For many years, knowledge was the driver. It was about what you knew, because things were not moving that quickly. Today, knowledge is an asset but has an extremely short shelf life. Learning is the only real source of sustainable competitive advantage. Willingness to learn and share what we learn is the vehicle that now drives success.”

But whether the responsibility for learning falls on the employee or the employer has yet to be determined. At Audi, Allen says, “By fostering an environment that is efficient in productivity and starting a culture that recognizes learning is an honor, a reward, we will create an industry that is attractive.”

The Collision-Repair Career Mindset

For such a broad problem, there is no single solution. However, professionals and organizations across the repair industry are taking strides to make an impact in their own way. There exists a strong feeling that both the shortage of new employees and the lack of modern knowledge, skills and equipment are due to an outdated mindset.

Usually, collision repair has been considered a trade, not a skill that requires a traditional education. However, Schulenburg argues that “Our industry requires bright, talented, motivated entrants to manage the highly sophisticated tasks associated with collision repair, and, culturally, we have encouraged those types of individuals to seek out nontechnical degrees.”

The current education standard in the automotive industry doesn’t generally require a college degree. “Bright, talented and motivated” does not always mean “college educated” in today’s world. But in the auto repair industry, it may now require a desire to learn and continue education beyond the bare minimum.
Perhaps if students and parents were aware of the opportunities available to hard workers in the industry, even without a traditional education, there would be a steady flow of incoming techs with an interest in collision repair, a desire to learn and the motivation to build a rewarding career.

As Notte explains, “I was a product of a technical background and found myself president of the fourth-largest collision repairer in the country.” Notte previously served as I-CAR’s director of business development, was president of Sterling Autobody Centers and served as chairman of the board of the National Auto Body Council.

“The best way to attract the best and the brightest [to the collision repair industry] is to lay out the technological momentum and need to learn, share and interact with others in the industry,” Peevy says. “Our industry can be framed up as an exciting career that requires individuals willing to stay sharp to apply.”

“I-CAR has also been a longtime supporter of the Collision Repair Education Foundation (CREF),” Notte adds. “That attraction needs to start in, or before, high school age. The industry needs to better communicate with parents about technical careers for their children. Entering an industry that craves new talent is a good place to be. We need to show how their children can progress as technicians and beyond that technical role, if that’s what they want.”

In a world where a college degree doesn’t guarantee a job and those without a traditional education can build and lead companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Facebook, perhaps the current image of the auto repair technician as an alternative route to college can be spun to the auto industry’s benefit.

This isn’t far from what’s brewing at the moment. Allen says he would like to “show that having a career in the collision repair industry could be attractive, lucrative and cool, without the need to go to college – that there are ways to learn which are addictively fun and powerful in building a career.”

The trick will be showing that a job in the auto industry, especially one as a technician, can morph into a viable career with dedication, hard work and a commitment to learning.

Schulenburg explains the next step for the industry, too, saying, “The trade is ever-evolving, and if young people knew the dynamic evolution that their career might take, and that there was a clearly defined road to go from the ground floor of the industry to a certified technician, diagnostician or structural team leader, I think we could incentivize greater participation.”

So, who is responsible for the continuing education of the industry? Even if many new technicians aren’t interested in a traditional education, a career in the modern collision repair industry needs a newfangled education.

“Since the loss of funding for healthy, active vocational programs, there is little focus on training from the start or the path of continued training for those who already are in the industry,” Allen says. “As individuals, we learn differently … Not all are born with the desire, will or ability to go to college.”

“Training doesn’t always happen in a formal class setting,” says Notte. “It requires time away from the shop floor, meaning lost productivity and revenue for the shop,” at least in the short term. But to succeed, it’s something that shops should consider investing in.

If traditional education isn’t the right fit for collision repair, what is?

I-CAR provides a ton of classes and certifications for techs across North America. Notte says that I-CAR has found that providing specific courses in our professional development program creates a relevant training and career path for technicians. “I-CAR’s National Scheduling initiative to work closer with career and technical schools and suppliers is providing training on a more regular basis and at fixed training sites around the United States as a way [to] adapt to the needs of its students [and] the industry.”

Allen shares insight into the most effective teaching methods at the Audi Academy. “Training is only effective if the student absorbs the information and applies it. To create an online training module is a step, but what if the student can’t absorb it because it is just in written form? If you are an audio learner, most of it will be lost. The test of the student and the trainer is if the student can produce the safe repair that is outlined in the repair procedures.”