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Kelley Lowery has worked in collision repair for more than 30 years. After high school, he followed his father and brothers into the industry. He owned a collision repair company in Amarillo, Texas, for 27 years, building four different shops and learning firsthand how to operate a shop. After a bad car wreck, he left the shop and became an insurance adjuster, working with storm damage claims in California and Texas. Unimpressed by the traveling required for his insurance gig, Lowery parlayed a good experience as a youth pastor into a career in education. He began teaching at UTI seven years ago, and after just a few months in that role, the high school graduate found himself in class as a student once again, completing his MBA last year and earning his Six Sigma Black Belt.

As a UTI education manager for the collision repair program, Lowery works at the school’s Houston campus. UTI offers collision repair training there and at its Sacramento, Calif., campus. The collision repair program uses the I-CAR curriculum. The 17-course program lasts 51 weeks. By the end of the training, students have completed the I-CAR collision repair program and qualify for 64 Gold Class points. Students learn welding, frame alignment, mechanical and electrical repair and custom painting. Lowery developed a new capstone course, which includes Lean Six Sigma training.

 

Many vocational schools are experiencing increased enrollment because of the tough job market. Are you?
Yes. When the economy’s down, we do see an uptick in enrollment. We have 530 enrolled in the collision program at the Houston campus. About four years ago, we averaged 400. Our Sacramento campus has increased from 150 to about 250.

 

Are you hiring more instructors, or are you all just working a lot harder?
We had been ramped up pretty good already, and we have added a few instructors. We have about 26 instructors in Houston and 16 to 18 in Sacramento.

 

What kind of qualifications do your instructors have? Do they have collision repair industry work experience?
Our requirement is that they have worked seven of the last 10 years. Many are technicians. We do extensive [instructor training] work with them. They have to be ASE certified in the courses they teach.
I’ve also trained all the instructors [in Lean Six Sigma] up to the yellow belt designation.

 

Right, Lean. That’s a big topic these days. Talk about your new Lean Six Sigma course.
It is part of the capstone course I created. We’ve also incorporated it into the rest of the program. The lean part is learning how to organize and remove waste from the work schedule and increase speed. We measure the students’ productivity and train them on ways to increase that through daily measurements. When they make some improvement, they see that immediately in a spreadsheet. At the end of each week they receive a “paycheck” that’s based on their productivity for the week. They get a “bonus” if they stay within the budget. It works pretty well, and the students like it. It gives them real-world experience.

 

Getting a “paycheck” and a “bonus” sounds a lot like the real world of collision repair.
Yes, and we’ve cut expenses on materials by 62 percent since we’ve incorporated budgeting into most of our courses. That way we’re able to move these budgeting metrics back to the student. Part of each student’s grade is how they manage a budget.

 

That’s a lot of information to track. How do you and the students know how they’re performing against their budget?
[Each student is identified by a barcode.] When each student gets their materials, we track how much they’re using [and give them points based on their usage]. We told them, “Use as much as you need. We’re trying to train you to be efficient.” The first time we ran it, about half the class didn’t get those points.

 

They couldn’t have been too happy about missing their numbers.
The next week, everybody got them.

So students are learning to use fewer materials to do the same work. What does that look like in your shop-classroom, from a practical standpoint?
We have a place for used sandpaper [for instance], and students use that old sandpaper before they’ll purchase new paper. It’s been very successful.
We have an advisory council and some of them are copying what we’re doing [in their real-world collision centers]. It’s a competitive thing: If we’re saving money [as a team], then let’s share something. That’s what we built this bonus on. If you stay on budget, you should receive some incentive.

 

Another real-world issue is technology. How do you stay up on new trends?
We have a relationship with Ford and access to the Ford websites. We have a lot of manufacturer relationships. Waterborne is our next big push. DuPont will do some training and upgrade the school to waterborne by 2011. [In Houston] we have a custom refinish class that uses waterborne. The Sacramento campus has started in waterborne because California’s already gone waterborne. But Texas won’t go waterborne until probably 2012, so we should be ready to roll a year in advance. We’re trying to stay ahead of all these developments.
 

 

With the emphasis on lean and waterborne, your students are learning the latest. That sounds like a benefit for entering the workforce.
It is. We have students from all 50 states. For example, a lot of shops in Houston are converting to waterborne and we want to be ahead of the curve. We do have competitors and this—converting to waterborne and Six Sigma, too—sets [our students] apart.

 

Even with the educational advantage and the general need for technicians, it’s still a tough job market. What are the biggest issues facing collision repair students as they enter the workforce?
The entry-level wages are sometimes a challenge. The shop wants to see productivity before they start investing in an employee so it’s a challenge to get an entry-level pay scale where a student can make a living.
Our industry has mostly been independent operators. Compare them with the auto dealer side: [Dealers] have always been higher as far as benefits and pay scales. I think that’s because of the economy of scale that the independent side has not had the advantage of.

 

And in the face of today’s challenges, how prepared are your students to meet them?
We’ve got pretty good productivity training here. Our last two courses are capstone courses that I wrote and developed. It’s a virtual shop. They spend six weeks receiving work and going on a time clock. They can see their productivity each day, each week. How much is this job costing? How much is the material costing? They have to budget and they’re able to see if they can manage that budget successfully. [When our students graduate] they understand lean terminology, cycle time and productivity. If they go to a shop that’s incorporated this, they’ll hit the ground running. No question about it.

You’ve been in the industry a long time. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen over the years?
When you go back 30 years, most techs maybe weren’t the best students. They weren’t that happy with academics. They were hands-on. They loved cars. Most of them took the usual path into car repair: sweeping floors and learning to sand. They’d apprentice two, three, four years down the road. That’s the old model.

But in the last 10, 15, 20 years, this has become a professionally trained work force. We’ve never had that opportunity in the car repair industry. When I started with I-CAR back in 1980, it took 10 years to get my guys trained. Now, in a year you can have a student trained in every best practice in the industry, and it’s verifiable. That’s where insurance companies can limit their liability—[by making sure trained workers are fixing cars.]

 

What else should the pros know about the education your students bring to the shop floor today?
One thing shop owners should recognize about the student: he’s not a journeyman yet [when he graduates from UTI], but he will come on faster than you can imagine. From structural to nonstructural to finishing work, no matter where you place him, he’ll have the knowledge and background to ramp up quick.

 

Want to take this opportunity to plug your program, or professional collision repair education programs in general?Hire these professionally trained entry-level techs; that’s what’s going to improve our industry. We’re transitioning away from the cottage-industry techs—and give them their due, they learned the hard way. These guys led the way. But now with a professionally-trained workforce, we’ll have improved cycle times, quality, all these things. To be able to have a professionally trained labor force, that’s powerful. That’s what’s going to prepare our industry for all the changes that are taking place. These professionally trained young people are ready for whatever comes their way.

 

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