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5 Steps to Setting Up a Front Office Apprenticeship

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​When Roarke Ponce began mentoring apprentice estimators, back in 2011, he could hardly believe some of the youngsters’ naivete.

“How to shake hands was taught to several” apprentices at the shop Ponce owns, Excel Auto Body, in Klamath Falls, Ore., he recalls.

Fortunately for him, Ponce soon discovered that apprenticeship programs certainly have merit, especially those that groom employees like estimators and CSRs.

“If we don’t create our next generation of workforce ourselves,” Ponce says, “we’re going to be hard pressed to hire them from somewhere else.”

And, Ponce values apprenticeship programs because they “allow me to basically create what I need for an estimator.”

Meanwhile, across the country, shop manager Joe Milazzo has similarly become an advocate of apprenticeship programs.

“We get some kids that never thought about an auto career in their life … and show them it’s [now] more about diagnostics and critical thinking―it’s not this dirty, dusty environment,” explains Milazzo, who manages Village Auto Body in Hampton Bays, N.Y., on Long Island.

Milazzo and Ponce recently spoke with FenderBender, breaking down the main keys to setting up an apprenticeship program that produces quality entry-level employees like estimators and CSRs.

Produce an SOP.

The first step in establishing a solid apprenticeship program is clearly stating your preferred procedure for it, Ponce says. After all, a thorough SOP tends to hold employees accountable.

A well-thought out SOP, Ponce adds, “holds the employees to a process, and then they’re more likely to understand and follow it.”

Ponce, whose facility produces $1.2 million in annual revenue, also feels that, by having your employees help create the SOP, it gets an entire staff to accept an apprenticeship program and all that it entails—such as having a young worker shadow longtime employees multiple days per week. It’s also important to clarify to a shop staff how long an apprenticeship is scheduled to last, as well as ironing out a consistent schedule for the young worker.

Milazzo, the manager of a $1.5 million-per-year shop, agrees, adding: “You have to live and die with the SOP. Once you lay that out, you can get pretty much anybody to carry it out. For a CSR, you make a checklist—like ‘check the lights, make sure the car’s clean’—and that sets you up for success.”

Focus on customer service.

Ponce’s primary focus at the beginning of an apprenticeship, he says “is the customer  service end of things.

“Because, if you have somebody that’s interacting with the customer, in the era of text messages, I don’t think a lot of people are coming out of high school with face-to-face skills.”

That’s why Ponce, whose business boasts a CSI of 93 percent, tries to teach apprentice estimators and CSRs “to listen—and to respond warmly. Just really listening before [customers] talk. Because, if we don’t let them get through what the customer wants to say, then they’re going to feel that we’re not paying attention, or don’t care.”

In the same vein, Milazzo tries to instil in apprentices the value of working with a sense of urgency and a respect for customers’ time.

Get the word out.

In order for an apprenticeship program to survive its infancy stage, it must be marketed by the participating business. Fortunately for body shop owners, they don’t need to spend much money to spread the word about their mentorship setup.

Local community colleges, chamber of commerce groups, and Rotary Clubs can help spread the message that a shop is looking for apprentices. Similarly, social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram are also helpful for such marketing endeavors, because they allow messages to be targeted to local audiences.

But most collision repairers agree: the best way to market an apprenticeship program is by reaching out to parents of local students. For example, Ponce occasionally hears Klamath Falls residents complain about how their children aren’t thriving in high school or community college because they’d prefer to spend their time largely working with their hands; in those situations, the body shop owner makes sure to note that collision repair is an industry that’s always in need of more workers.

Practice patience.

Implementing an apprenticeship program usually doesn’t require a big expenditure by a business owner, Milazzo says, noting that “you just have to budget your time, even if it’s just a couple hours each day.”

What apprenticeship programs do require of shop operators, however, is a fair amount of patience. After all, such programs typically demand that shop staffs provide guidance to teenagers with zero legitimate job experience.

“You’ve got to be a teacher,” he says. “You’ve got to pass [knowledge] on. … You get what you put into it.”  

Maintain team unity.

The toughest hurdle Ponce has had to scale with regard to utilizing an apprenticeship program is getting all employees to accept it. Eventually, he learned that he simply needs to reassure staffers that their pay won’t be impacted if an apprentice slows shop production.

“The biggest thing has been pay—making sure that the employees that train other employees, that their pay isn’t affected,” Ponce says. “We’ll either have a combination of hourly and flagged time, so that they know that they have a base pay that they can fall back on, or, [we] flag them extra hours, depending on how their pay is set up.”

Estimated Milestones A pair of veteran shop operators explain the ideal timeline for integrating an apprentice estimator into a body shop staff.

First month: According to Joe Milazzo, the manager at Village Auto Body in Hampton Bays, N.Y., the first month of an estimator’s apprenticeship should be “about establishing basic knowledge of the vehicle—how to properly document damage, non-related damage, and how to access repair instructions from an OEM.”

Sixth month: By the sixth month of an apprenticeship program, Roarke Ponce, who owns Excel Auto Body in Klamath Falls, Ore., typically expects would-be estimators to be proficient at data retrieval pertaining to OEM websites, to be familiar with a shop’s preferred parts and materials distributors, to have completed I-CAR Pro Level 1 training, and “to be able to write most estimates without oversight.”

 

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