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It’s no secret that the automotive industry has experienced a significant labor shortage, particularly during the pandemic. 

At the start of the pandemic, C.J. Paterniti, president of DS Automotive Collision and Restyling in suburban Cleveland, Ohio, had 80 employees. In what seems like a reversal of the norm, Paterniti since has grown his staff to 90. His secret is to take a proactive stance regarding recruitment efforts—even when he doesn’t have any job openings—with a focus on retention strategies. 

The Backstory

Paterniti’s father started DS Automotive in 1977 in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. Currently, the company has three collision repair locations serving Northeast Ohio, one of which contains an accessory business. Another facet of the business is Defender Auto Glass, with four facilities throughout the region.

During the pandemic, Paterniti estimates he lost about three employees among his seven locations, and all of them left the industry altogether. “They were Gen Y, about 25-30 years old. I don’t think their hearts were set on the industry,” he says. 

When Paterniti received the results of his yearly employment engagement survey, the employees who stayed listed three buzzwords which described why they enjoyed working for the company: family, organized, and integrity.

Still, while retention is a good gauge of employee satisfaction, employees can and will leave any time and for any reason. Because of this, recruitment is always at the forefront of Paterniti’s mind. 

The Problem

During The Great Resignation, 4.5 million people left their jobs in November 2021 alone, according to figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But even before this, the auto collision repair sector has struggled with worker shortages—and it’s only gotten worse. 

This pervasive problem can keep even the most successful business owners up at night. “I wake up every morning trying to figure out how to do the same auto business with one less person, because someone may be off work or may quit; you have to have this mindset,” he says.

Of course, it can be hard to replace a senior technician with years of experience and mechanical aptitude with someone fresh out of trade school. 

But Paterniti says that many young people are expecting higher starting wages, and it’s hard for him to compete with businesses that pay a high starting wage for unskilled labor. “When we recruit, we try to recruit a career-minded person. We try to qualify people coming in because we want them to be long-term,” he says, adding that he invests a great deal of time and money in training his staff.

“Last year, I spent over $75,000 in education for my staff,” he notes. 

It’s this investment of time that pays off and leads to more serious candidates and less company-wide turnover. 

The Solution

For Paterniti, the solution to staying ahead of the game and maintaining a full roster of employees has always been to be proactive in recruitment efforts as well as to think outside the box. He uses a multi-fold strategic approach to attract new employees. 

The old saying, “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” is easy to say but not as easy to do, and when you run a 90-person company, sometimes you have to delegate others to take over some important tasks.  

Because his company is on the larger side, with three distinct, though interrelated, aspects of the business, Paterniti employs an in-house human resources coordinator to help with recruitment, as well as retention of staff. “HR was the weakest part of my company, and I knew it needed to get better, so I focused on that area. I was kidding myself, thinking I could do it all,” he laughs. One of his coordinator’s main job duties is to qualify potential candidates as well as understand the ins and outs of the positions for which he is hiring.

Another major step in recruitment was establishing a relationship with a trade school in the area in order to find new hires.

“Six years ago, I began working very diligently with a local tech school and created an apprenticeship program,” he says. 

Specifically, it’s a paid internship program, with a job shadow component. 

“They have to qualify for the internship program, have good attendance and grades, which gives them an opportunity to interview with us to be an apprentice. The tech school can prepare kids only so far. We set an expectation for them to have a simple mechanical aptitude, organization, and be on time. The rest of what we offer is on-the-job training. We offer real world experience, which is key when developing kids in this industry,” Paterniti says.

The students complete this internship program during their senior year of high school, and even though they are not automatically offered employment with DS Automotive, Paterniti estimates he has hired 12 graduates straight out of the program over the past five years. 

And the participants learn more than just automotive repair skills. “In addition to trade skills, they will learn soft skills and life skills, like stress management and organized lunch-and-learns. I do that for all my staff, not just apprentices,” Paterniti says. 

Another recruitment strategy—practically essential today—is to have a presence on as many social media platforms as possible: Facebook, Constant Contact, Indeed, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok. He also offers a signing bonus for new staff members as well as a referral bonus for employees only, provided the new employee stays for a minimum of 90 days. 

Paterniti also aims to engage his staff with regular after-hours events, such as a golf outing or Friendsgiving celebration, allowing the employees a chance to bond. “I want that corporate-style business with a family feel. This is not just a job where you come in and punch a (time) clock,” he says. This close-knit company culture gives him a leg up in recruiting and has the bonus effect of being good for retention. 

The company itself gives back to the community in multiple ways, such raising money for various charities. It also offers two paid volunteer days each year. Being both visible and charitable in the community is part of the company philosophy, and though the motivation for having a sense of generosity is not to attract new employees, it often has that effect. 

And Paterniti will go out of his way to find the right person for his company. Currently, he has a “phenomenally talented'' tech school prospect who rides two bus lines for his apprenticeship because he cannot afford a car. “He is going to be offered a position, and I’m trying to find him a vehicle, to get him reliable transportation, so he can have a successful life,” Paternity says.

The Aftermath

Unlike many companies that struggled to stay open and functioning during the pandemic, DS Automotive Collision and Restyling is growing and thriving, with more employees now than prior to the pandemic. With these recruitment strategies firmly in place—and effective ones at that—the company’s stability and growth is on a forward-moving path. 

“I want to do my best to make sure my staff is the most successful they can be; I want people to come work for me who see themselves become successful,” he says. 

On the flip side, he will not employ someone who only cares about making money or whose values and attitudes don’t align with the company’s. “They could be the most talented person in the world and the hardest to employ. An uncoachable kid is an unemployable adult. Just because they can make me a lot of money doesn’t mean they’re a good fit for my organization,” he notes. 

Besides, the company has the advantage of having been in existence for 45 years, so it is a well-established name in the community. 

“We have a brand that people know; we try to do the best we can every day,” Paterniti adds. 

And when it was time to expand the company, he branched out to Chardon, Ohio, where he was raised. “We are well known, that is why I went to that location when I expanded. There’s value to my family’s name,” he says.

The Takeaway

The truth is, Paterniti says, is that collision shops have to always be on the offensive when it comes to recruiting. 

“It’s always been easy to sit back and get applications, but we’re in a day and age where we have to eat what we kill. The mindset is that you have to be aggressive in this industry. You have to be offensive in how you attract talent. You have to adapt to the circumstances and to the environment. Be proud of who you are and offer all the additional benefits you have to offer; pride yourself on that,” he says. 

If he has any advice for other shops, it’s to “Focus on a true need, define what you’re actively looking for, and be proactive in going out and trying to attract employees. You have to have an optimistic perception if you want to succeed in any industry, especially in this one.”

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