Your Guide to Apprenticeships
Billy Vallely isn’t just coaching apprentices on proper welding techniques—he’s building the future of this industry.
“While I teach them, I give them my backstory and show them I had thirst for knowledge starting out,” he says.
As mentees flow through Master Collision, they’re encouraged to ask questions. They’re given the freedom to work on heavy repairs. They’re coached by veteran members of the industry. In the end, the apprentices come out the other side not just encouraged, but also inspired, to become more than just another line technician.
Truly, those new members of the collision repair industry are the result of Vallely’s mission statement:
“It’s my life’s mission to rebuild this industry from the ground up.”
Let that phrase “from the ground up” sink in for one second: In New York City, in the borough of Queens, the employee shortage failed to envelope this one remote collision repair facility—all thanks to a single apprenticeship program that empowered novices to become lifelong professionals.
Vallely can tell dozens of stories in this vein—but not enough to fix a nationwide dilemma that, year after year, continues to threaten the future of collision repair. At that ground level, which includes small programs like Vallely’s, not enough is being done. Master Collision is just one section in the blueprint that, once completed, will reveal the map for fixing the employee shortage.
Gregory McVicker, too, has made it his mission to help finish the blueprint. As the collision center manager for the Budd Baer Auto dealership, McVicker started his own employment marketplace, Talent Monger, four years ago, through which he’s helping shops outline the apprenticeship process from start to finish and create a pipeline of quality employees.
Apprenticeships are an intimidating venture—if you’re not prepared. But if you follow advice from people well versed in the practice, you’ll be ready to build a better future for your shop, for your industry.
Part 1: Create a Funnel
If the industry categorizes wannabe professionals as a hindrance, it won’t be able to truly connect with anyone interested in an automotive career—a truth the TechForce Foundation deeply understands, Jennifer Maher says.
Maher is the CEO of TechForce, a nonprofit that guides students through a technical education into the automotive industry. She has seen firsthand that apprenticeships are an important part of a constantly evolving and growing business—but she’s also witnessed the core reason many of them fail:
“You can’t just set up a program and expect people to walk in.”
While there is a general lack of interest in trade positions (there are currently 5.8 million unfilled trade openings, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), Rob Worman has worked with enough collision repair shops in rural Indiana to see the real problem.
“We work with five shops in our area, but they’re all under that old-school thinking and not very interested in apprentices,” says Worman, who has spent 11 of his 24-year collision repair career shaping students at Area 30 Career Center in Greencastle, Ind. “They say we slow down their guys. I don’t know where they think they’ll get future employees.”
That’s why, after working with repair shops in his area for over a decade, he knows it’s essential that shop operators adopt the “new-school mindset.” When you start viewing apprenticeships as part of a well oiled machine—as opposed to a clog in that machine—the dots will naturally connect. That means creating a funnel for anyone interested in working at your shop. And there are a few ways to help facilitate that inflow.
Partner with Shops.
Vallely’s working relationship with the industry-renowned collision repair instructor Barry Roopnarine has allowed Vallely to suss out the students with the most promise, which is crucial when determining where the student will fit into the area NATEF network.
In case you’re unaware, the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF) helps schools form local advisory committees of industry professionals, bridging the gap between education and industry. The area shops on the committee Vallely heads host students at various apprenticeships throughout the year, exposing those students to different systems, processes and specializations.
“One has many certifications, one is independent and does all kinds of work, and another does all DRP work. One sprays solvent based, versus water based,” Vallely says. “I want students to feel the pressure of what’s it's like on daily basis. Kids are interested in that kind of program.”
Connect with Counselors, Parents.
You won’t reach any students if they’re being deterred from trades altogether by parents and counselors, who believe a traditional four-year university is the only prosperous route, Maher says.
“The industry should pull those parents and counselors in, engage them, let them not forget they are vitally important to fuel future tech workforce,” she says. “We have to paint the picture for them with career opportunities and dispel those myths.”
Maher says to be upfront about how pay structures work in shops and how much students can make in the profession. Also, play up how sophisticated cars have become, and how vehicle repair requires a deep understanding of electrical and computing systems.
You can easily set up meetings with area counselors, or even do what Vallely does, which is invite parents to visit the shop with their aspiring technicians.
“I really try to paint a picture of not just a potential employee, but a person that can build their own destiny and change the industry as a whole—that’s the way I look at every student,” he says. “I don't want to coddle them. I want to train them and make them valuable. I explain my commitment as a mentor to them, and that my door is always open.”
Provide Equipment to Students.
Partnering with an area collision repair instructor bears more benefits than meets the eye, Worman says.
“The other day, we had a car we were painting. We ran out of toner, and [a partnering shop owner] had someone run some down to us,” he recounts. “And once, they needed an aluminum welder, and we did the repair for them. It’s a give and take.”
This working relationship consistently puts the latest equipment and repair procedures in front of students, and then brings work-ready students into shops. Worman’s classroom has adopted the same paint system used in participating shops, so that when students rotate between classroom and apprenticeships, they’re experiencing familiar settings.
Beyond students, working with parents is perhaps your biggest obstacle, Maher says.
Look within Your Own Shop.
McVicker has had several people head through his collision center’s apprenticeship program over the years, but the top graduates always seem to come from one particular place—his own shop.
Budd Baer receives most of its mentees through local trade schools, but the positions are also available to porters and detailers looking to move up in the company.
“Usually, the most successful people have already been through business and know our processes,” he says. “We give them the means to move forward to increase income potential.”
Part 2: Form a Gameplan
Greg Settle, director of national initiatives for the TechForce Foundation, would really like to delve into the structure of the actual apprenticeship once the student is in the shop—but there’s one bit of preparation he needs to stress first.
“You need a written plan to follow,” he says. “What tasks you’ll be covering, and what information they’ll be learning.”
Settle recommends closely following the NATEF guidelines for apprenticeships (which, once again, are located in the iHub), and creating SOPs for how the apprenticeship process will work for mentors, apprentices and the person overseeing both parties (e.g., the shop owner).
Meet with your team to determine your shop’s strengths and to discuss which skills are most essential to people looking to break into the industry. Map out a timeline that moves students between various specialties and tasks to give them a rounded view of daily shop life.
McVicker, in fact, has provided FenderBender readers a basic structure for what an apprenticeship should look like (you can also download this guide here). Depending on the skill level of promise of the apprentice, his shop assigns either a one- or two-year program for the individual. And every six months, the apprentice is evaluated on what he or she has learned. He’ll plan to rotate each apprentices through various departments to give them a holistic view of the shop.
Here is how a two-year program is broken up at Budd Baer:
- Locate the VIN (vehicle identification number) and identify a vehicle based on year, make, and model.
- Describe and understand the format and information on a standard estimate from all three major estimating systems (CCC, Mitchell, and Audatex).
- Translate estimate damage to real damage on the vehicle.
- Disassemble exterior/interior parts without excessive damaged/lost parts.
- Organize clips and fasteners based on shop SOP.
- Build a parts cart, per shop SOP.
- Repair plastic parts utilizing the shop’s method
- Straighten and repair to primer, metal damage under 3 hrs
- Prep for paint, plastic and sheet metal–repaired panels (sand and block, mask and paper)
- Identify where on the vehicle the paint code is located
- Understand basic color match concepts, including where to locate spray-outs in the shop’s color library
- With assistance of your mentor, set up and measure a unibody vehicle
- Reassemble exterior and interior panels
- During the last six months, the apprentice should be successfully performing basic repairs on their own with minimal supervision of their mentor
- The apprentice should be logging their own hours on work produced in accordance with shop SOP
Part 3: Onboard Apprentices
With those SOPs, you’ll have outlined an apprenticeship blueprint for both parties, meaning you can properly set expectations for both employees and students ahead of the process.
While your employees will help shape the apprenticeship blueprint, they’ll still need to be properly “onboarded,” meaning they’ll need training and advice for how to mentor students.
Vallely says there’s no clear-cut way to coach someone on mentoring—rather, a good mentor eventually finds his or her footing through practice. An introvert and an extrovert could have entirely different teaching styles, but if you’ve catered the blueprint to each employee’s expertise, they’ll naturally find their teaching style in a live setting.
Vallely has coached many students on proper welding, and says, ultimately, it’s most important to show that you’re passionate about your work—so stress that with your employees.
“I give them my backstory, and show them I had thirst for knowledge starting out,” he says about mentoring students.
Finally, students should be explained the apprenticeship process.
You’ll need to adjust that timeline to account for the amount of students in your shop. Vallely prefers to keep the overall number of students low (so they aren’t distracted by one another), and to keep students in groups of two or three so they have a familiar peer throughout the process.
Also, determine the length of time students spend in the shop. In Vallely’s shop-to-shop program, a student typically spends two weeks in each shop. Within those two weeks, he explains a schedule, during which the student will hit all the important stops.
Part 4: Monitor the Apprenticeship
Maher has overseen marketing and headed corporate alliances at both YMCA and Make-A-Wish America, where she observed the importance of higher-level planning on a national scale from an executive level.
But, at the end of the day, she acknowledges it’s really all about those small, intimate relationships that go on to reshape lives.
“One person can make a difference,” she says. “If one person exposes them to the career, it can completely alter their life. That’s why apprenticeship programs are so important.”
Once both parties have been introduced and the process is understood, Vallely says it’s important to allow mentees and mentors to form their bonds and to keep your distance.
Arrange for regular follow-ups with students and employees to ensure there are no problems and that, ultimately, the experience is creating a better culture—and a better future employee.
Also, keep in contact with the students’ instructor to gauge any issues you can’t observe in your own shop. The instructor will have insight into how effective the live training has been for the students.
In the end, whether you’ve gained a new employee or not, Vallely says the reward will be inherent. If that student moves on to another shop, you’ve done your part and set the industry on the right path.
And if every shop operator owns that mentality? Then the industry will have a fully realized solution on its hands.