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How a collision repair instructor keeps his students up to speed

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Immediately following 9/11, Kansas shop owner Eric Showalter saw his business drop 65 percent, eventually leading him to get out and become a collision repair instructor at Washburn Institute of Technology in Topeka, Kansas. 

An I-CAR student since 1984, Showalter misses running his own shop, but loves using industry connections to pair students with seasoned technicians in the area. Those connections have also helped him bring in industry stakeholders such as the Collision Repair Education Foundation and State Farm Insurance Foundation to give his classes access to the latest equipment. 

This is Showalter’s perspective on running a collision repair program in a world of finite resources, while keeping himself up to date on the latest equipment and processes. 


How does your I-CAR involvement benefit your students? 

It provides the opportunity for my students and I to stay in touch with the industry and find out what’s new, what’s relevant and what’s going on in today’s work world. My biggest advantage in that is finding employment opportunities for my students and making the industry aware that we do have good quality, talented young men and women coming out of vocational schools and ready to go to work. We’re in an aging industry, and we have both post-secondary and high-school students here, so we have a wide range of talent and ages that are ready to work at the apprentice level.


How are enrollment numbers in your collision repair program?

We reach capacity with two instructors having 60 students per semester. Right now I’m at 12, where I could be at 30. We’re working with our staff of recruiters, and the Collision Repair Education Foundation is helping us talk with middle school-aged and high school freshmen and sophomores about their career tracks. If college doesn’t work for them, here’s a viable opportunity to come into an industry that needs young talent. We have good facilities and good pay plans and benefits packages, so this is something they should look at. We’re looking for a turnaround—we want to fill this place up. 


What kind of fulfillment do you get out of being an instructor? 

As a shop owner, I was dissatisfied with the education level of the new people coming in. It came down to putting up or shutting up. You’re either going to be a part of the solution and make things better within the industry, or you don’t have any reason to complain and no right to complain. This is the most exciting time we’ve had in my 38 years in the field with the lightweighting of vehicles, the aluminum wave and electronics going the way they are. As one of my mechanical instructor cohorts says, we haven’t been Bondo Billys or grease monkeys for a long time now, and it’s time the world recognizes that we are a valuable part of the industry. 


Are you stretched thin for time and resources? 

It’s hard for the administration. We tell them we need a million dollars to update our paint department, and the first thing they do is compare us to an accounting class where all they need is books and computers. We also need $150,000 to update our frame machine and measuring system. They could have 15 accounting classes for what it costs for one of our pieces of equipment. Through industry support and the Collision Repair Education Foundation and State Farm Companies Foundation, we have been blessed with donations and grants. 


What do you like about this industry? 

Cars keep changing every day, changing faster than anything else so how could you get bored with the automotive industry? Look at what we drove 20 years ago compared with what we’re driving today. Now think about what we’ll be driving in five years. Also, I have always enjoyed seeing the light come on with my students. 

Seeing the spark, the twinkle in a student’s eye when they finally figure out that they can achieve that one goal and move on to the next one.  

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