Becoming a Destination Shop
It’s a question every shop is asking: How can we recruit qualified technicians, and how do we keep the talented techs we have? These questions have a myriad of answers and none of them provide an easy solution.
Shops aren’t going to stop asking those questions anytime soon. But there’s another question they can ask that might be an answer of its own: How can we become a place that techs want to work at in the first place? Rather than react, what can shops do to be proactive in solving their labor woes?
Speaking at the 2022 FenderBender Management Conference, Mike Anderson got right to the point: To grow your business, you have to grow your people. And Anderson didn’t ignore the facts, pointing out the reality that the industry is going to need 80,000 new technicians by 2024, according to the TechForce Foundation. Whether or not that target is achievable is up for debate, but the drive for new techs is on and they’re looking for work.
Today’s employees expect different things than workers even a few years ago. Higher salaries, better benefits and flexible working schedules are how employers are differentiating themselves in the current labor market. While not all of these benefits are feasible in collision repair, the shops that can offer the most can become destination shops in the eyes of prospective employees.
For Nick Edwards, owner of four-shop Car Center out of Michigan, if you’re not starting with an established culture then it’s difficult to be attractive to the employees you’re seeking. It’s one thing for a manager to tell a prospective employee what they’re going to get out of working at a given shop. It’s another for them to hear it from their future colleagues.
“I know we’re successful when I can tell that person, go call six different people that work for us and ask them how it is,” says Edwards. “And so I feel like that I can say that confidently, I don't prep my team. I'm not like, ‘Hey, Jim's calling, say a good word for me, he wants to come work here,’ my hope is that they can naturally call the team members that currently work here. And they say, ‘Yeah, you got to get on board. It's awesome.’”
For Edwards, that’s part of one of his business’ guiding principles. At a lot of shops, and a lot of businesses in general, the customer comes first. That’s true in a sense for Car Center, but Edwards says that his team of employees comes first. Team members are the first customer. And that in turn benefits the customers, who will be receiving great service from happy, satisfied and skilled professionals.
That well-rounded approach is key for Car Center’s goal of offering more than just a job. That means offering a place where a tech can grow a career in the collision repair industry, not just make a stop on the way to something else. And that means offering a place where an employee’s entire well-being is cared for, and they’re not just there to collect a paycheck.
“There's a lot of people that are money driven, and lots of people are driven by different things. But I think one of the things in our generation today or the workforce today, that we're seeing more than ever, is that people want to be a part of something bigger than themselves,” says Edwards.
Car Center employees are empowered to play a role in the shop’s broader, long-term success. Playing a key role in maintaining that inclusive culture is Megan Bridinger, culture ambassador for the company. Bridinger cited the company’s open door policy for employees to offer feedback or suggestions as well as regular opportunities to contribute.
“We actually do these things called the start, stop, keep meeting,” says Bridinger, “And this is basically an opportunity for each of our locations to kind of get together. And it says in the name, what we should start doing, what we should stop doing and what we should keep doing. And especially this is really beneficial to everybody sitting in one room having a conversation.”
Edwards adds that in addition to the start, stop and keep meetings, which are geared around technicians, there also are “L10” meetings at the leadership level and at the store level, where general managers and estimators can get together and talk process. Employees also receive regular reviews, not only to monitor their performance but also get insight into the employee’s goals.
“There's four questions that we ask all the time,” says Edwards. “Do you have the tools and resources to do your job? What have I done to support you and help you do your job better? And what have I done to hinder your job? What goals do you want? So, asking for their feedback and how we can improve as well.”
Like Car Center, the crew at Pro Tech Collision Center in Houston believes strongly in the relationship between happy employees and happy customers. Skilled employees make quality repairs, leading to even happier customers. That’s why Pro Tech owner Adria Gonzales makes sure her employees get the training they need and want to enhance their career.
“Being an independent, you have to strategically look at how you're going to grow and leverage an independent shop for the future,” said Gonzales, whose shop received a 2022 FenderBender Best Workplaces Award. “And given the EV trends, that is something that I have asked our team, ‘Are you interested in this,’ and they are so excited that we're working on plans to get them up to speed so that we can start advertising that we have the certifications to work on the EV and hybrid vehicles out there.”
In addition to I-CAR and technical training, Gonzales says she’s always interested in any training that can help employees work better together. Open communication is a priority at Pro Tech and helps make a positive environment.
“Walking the shop, as the owner, I have a team that they know what their responsibilities are,” says Gonzales. “And they know that if they do their part, I'm also going to ensure that I have their back. I think in this world of people, people are definitely trying to make sure that they can have a sustainable, happy, balanced life. And that's something that I want my employees to have as well.”
That means a manageable schedule for employees, no six- or seven-day work weeks if it can be avoided. Techs have the option of extra hours in busy periods if they need it, but otherwise Gonzales trusts employees to budget their time during business hours. The shop offers paid holidays if they fall during the week, and also offers a week of paternity leave for new fathers.
“We’re trying to bring in a younger generation to help fill the gaps of those that are also retiring out of this industry, and try and bridge that gap and share the knowledge across the board,” says Gonzales.
One of the ways Gonzales is dealing with the projected tech shortage is by thinking creatively. Maybe a prospective employee doesn’t have the collision repair experience that’s ideal in that position. But Gonzales says she’s learned to look at a person’s abilities, and not necessarily what they have done.
She cited an example of an employee in her office with a teaching background who has the outgoing personality to work with customers and also the organizational skills to keep track of several different tasks at once. She also has an employee who was a welding instructor, possessing mechanical knowledge while also being able to convey that information well to a customer.
“I really look at each person's strong suits and see what skill sets each person contributes,” says Gonzales. “And by doing that, it may, if we're trying to find a role to fill, it may not be through the traditional aspects of finding someone who's already established a career in the collision repair industry. Only because we do have a shortage of resources.”
Naturally, the shops that do the best at becoming destination shops don’t have to flex those muscles often as they’ll have fewer positions to fill. That was the case for both Pro Tech, which is just a few years old, and Car Center, which has employees who have been with the company for nearly 20 years. More are literally waiting to get in.
“We have people that are, potentially waiting in the wings to join our team, just because they want to be a part of it,” says Edwards. “And they like the leadership that we have in place. And so that's a pretty rare thing I think in our industry right now.”
Both owners say they would like to do more. Gonzales hopes to be able to offer retirement plans, and also find solutions to common employee complaints such as the strain that supply chain woes put on their efficiency. Edwards was proud the company was able to recently offer short term disability benefits and he hopes to add life insurance benefits in the near future. These are some tweaks that add to what has already been a successful environment for both attracting and retaining employees.
“Everything always comes back to a set of core values,” says Edwards. “And that is the driving force of everything we do every one of our conversations.”
Gonzales reminds that while each shop is of course looking to bring in the best employees, it’s ultimately the customer who will benefit in the end.
“Find what you want to be able to create in creating the culture,” says Gonzales. “Because that is the thing that I look at is that this a customer who has a wrecked vehicle, who has to bring it in for repair, that's stressful, and we want to make their experience less stressful and not add any more stress to the fact that they're having to have a vehicle repaired and take the burden off of them and provide them kind of a one stop experience.”