Raising Awareness for the Collision Repair Industry
LAS VEGAS, Nov. 5, 2019
Anna: Hi,everyone! Anna Zeck here, editor of FenderBender, and we are coming to you live from one of the most heartfelt nights of SEMA. It is the Collision Repair Education Foundation’s reception, so tonight they recognize a bunch of students, school programs, instructors, and we have one of those instructors with us. This is Steve; he's from City College of Billings, and his program is actually the last Collision Repair program in the state of Montana, so he definitely has unique circumstances. He's being recognized here. The Collision Repair Education Foundation has helped his program out, as well as countless other shops in the area, so it should be a really great evening. So thanks for being here, Steve.
Steve: You're welcome.
Anna: So the last program in Montana, that sounds so ominous.
Steve: It does, especially if you look at the size of Montana. It's a very large state.
Anna: Exactly. So, can you tell us a little bit about your program — I mean how that even happen that there came to be only one program left?
Steve: Yeah, well, we live in Billings, so that's the biggest city in Montana. A lot of the other schools that had it were in a little bit smaller areas that didn't have quite as much money, so a lot of their program updates would cost too much money for them to handle. Student numbers started dwindling, as they have across the country, and when it all got funneled down, Billings was the last one standing. So I'd started in 2017 teaching and working really hard to update it, work with shops, get things moving again.
Anna: Got it. So what is the biggest barrier in your experience to keeping programs like this going? Is it not enough kids, so you don't have enough funding, or not enough funding? Is it more of the chicken or the egg situation?
Steve: It’s kind of the chicken or the egg. The biggest issue we have, I feel, besides funding, is just getting the word out that collision is a good industry. It's not just a dirty job that people are sending dumb kids to go to. You have to be really smart. It is a really, really good job opportunity. You can make well over six figures. In Montana, you can make that much. Luckily, in Montana we have one of the strongest associations in the country, so I get a ton of support that way. The school itself, if I had to depend on funding from there, I wouldn't be able to run the program at all. It takes partnerships with all sorts of shops and industry leaders to keep it going.
Anna: So, what are the conversations like that you have with leaders at the school, counselors? What does that look like? What are they saying to you when you have those conversations or you're trying to convince them that this is a great industry to be in?
Steve: It's not hard to convince my superiors within City College. The biggest struggle I have within the university system, they push the four-year education instead of the trades, which is a common problem across the country. And so it's really important to me, not so much for my administrators, to get out to the high schools and to counselors and show them just how much money can be made, how much money is saved by going to tech school and what great opportunities are.
Anna: Is that something that when you have those conversations with people they're just not aware of it? How does it go?
Steve: Most counselors I talk to just have no idea, because most high school counselors don't make as much money as most body and painters. Actually a lot of body shops that I talk to, when they talk to counselors, they offered to show them their paycheck and compare, because a lot of counselors have the four-year degree, which is great if that's what you want to do, but they just have no idea how much money can be made in the industry, and they’re flabbergasted when they find out.
Anna: So you were telling me off camera that last year you had 6 students. This year you doubled and have 14, so what have the students been like since they've gotten into the program? Have you seen them continue on to have careers within the industry?
Steve: Oh, yeah. So I have several graduates that most of them had jobs before they left, because there's such a technician shortage. So they were able to work part-time, and as soon as they graduated, the shop grabbed them and kept them full-time. I have a lot of business owners come and judge skills competitions, so even if they don't have a job when they start, they have opportunities, because the owners have already seen them work and know that they're going to be a good technician.
Anna: So you were also telling me just how expensive it is to run a program like this. I mean you need a paint booth and all the equipment you have in a shop. Can you talk a little bit about that, the cost of equipment and tooling, that goes into having those available for students?
Steve: Yes, so the cost of paint is my biggest issue — clear coat, primer. Even if you go with a lower brand, it is extremely expensive. And in order to get the skills they need, we need to constantly be spraying and sanding and spraying and sanding, so it's a lot of waste of that product. With my budget at the school, it does not increase with student numbers. So I went over budget a little bit with six students, and now I have 14, so I don't see how that's going to stretch out further. So I have to really watch my budget, and I have to count on donations, things like that from industry support.
Anna: So along those lines of Industry support, shops are watching other Montana shops in your area. What's the biggest way they can help programs like yours?
Steve: The best way to help is, first of all, contact the instructors, see what they need. A lot of it, if you just have some product laying around — old sandpaper or something — that's going to be a great help, even if you don't have enough money to give a monetary donation. I've taken used equipment from shops, something that they've updated that would still be great for us to use, but the biggest thing is to work with the instructor, find out what we need. And the instructor needs to work with shops to find out the best way that I need to be training, so they come out of the school and are ready to go into the shops now.
Anna: Well, thank you so much for being here, and thank you so much for all you do for the industry. Thanks everybody!