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Developing an Internship Program

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It’s been a struggle for as long as Max Sorensen can remember: “Everyone is always complaining that it’s impossible to find good technicians,” he says. “That’s something you hear everywhere, in every part of the country.”

As the location manager for Keenan Auto Body’s Edgemont, Pa., location, Sorensen was tasked with solving this problem for the 11-shop MSO. His simple solution: an internship program.

Creating a sustainable, repeatable internship program can allow a shop to build for its future by educating and training would-be technicians on the ins and outs of the auto body world—and ensuring they’re ready to work in the shop upon completing the program. Although thorough, the internship program Sorenson created for Keenan can be carried out in any shop, he says.

We wanted to create a different education option for kids who are considering entering the collision repair industry. That was kind of the whole idea, and I was put in charge of developing a program, a sort of “Keenan University” where we develop talent and train them on not only how to repair or paint a vehicle, but also on how to be a productive member of our shop.

Before setting up a program, there are four important things to remember:

1. This is about education. It’s not a job. They are a student in your shop, not an employee. We don’t pay our interns. And there are legal issues with setting it up that way. They’re no different than a student at a college. It just so happens they’re getting their education here—and they’re doing it without having to pay tuition.

2. Put one person in charge of it. It takes time and effort to set up initially, and it requires monitoring. We are going to eventually roll out our program to more of our locations, and at each, the location manager will be in charge.

3. Involve your staff in setting it up. You’re going to need their buy-in to make this program successful. I had two technicians in my shop, one from body and one from paint, help me develop the entire program, from curriculum to what we looked for in candidates. They also serve as the mentors to the intern, which I’ll get to later. Overall, it helped them really take ownership of their roles in the program and it became a source of pride. It wasn’t just another thing they were forced to do.

4. Recruit on personality. You’ll teach them the skills and processes. Find someone who’s eager to learn and receptive to new ideas. An ounce of will outweighs a pound of skill.

In developing the curriculum, we wanted to set the internship up to be similar to a year of school. It’s pretty simple, but there was a lot of thought that went into each facet of it. You really need to figure out what the desired result of the program is, and work your way back. We knew that, if an intern graduated through the program, we wanted them to be qualified for an entry-level position with us. So, what would we need to teach them to do it?

Here’s a breakdown of what we came up with:

It has two overall segments—paint and body. A lot of tech schools will let students dabble in both, but we want the intern to pick a career path, and that’s what they will focus on entirely. Each segment has a designated mentor that the intern will shadow and learn from.

Each intern receives a starter tool set. It’s nothing fancy, but it allows them to get their own tool collection going. We provide roughly $1,200 to $1,500 worth of tools. It’s not something all shops would have to do, but it’s an incentive we offer.

It runs for nine months. It’s just like a regular school year, and we expect them to be in the shop four days per week for five hours at a time. That way, they have plenty of time to learn, and can still work a job outside the shop if they need to.

We have three trimesters. There are three, three-month periods that make up the internship. Each period covers specific topics and has a test at the end of it. For instance, on the body side, Period 1 covers technical repair planning, intro light body work and basic reassembly; Period 2 is body work and light welding; and Period 3 goes over structural repair and welding, and guided full repair. The mentors provide the training based on the OEM and the shop’s procedures. They also are taught things like maintenance and organization.

We require I-CAR training. The intern must take and pass at least one I-CAR course per trimester, which are paid for by the shop. They aren’t limited to just the three, though; they can take as many as they want. It’s a benefit of the program, but it also makes them a more qualified technician when they are done.

The program ends with a final hands-on exam. We have one final test that is a culmination of everything they learned. For example, on the paint side, they have to complete an entire paint job on their own.

We’ve  had one intern graduate already, and he is working in our paint department and is a great employee.

For our shop, it’s created a new pathway for finding new employees, and it’s only going to grow from here. Our staff enjoys it, and it’s something we now take pride in. Instead of worrying where we’ll find our next employee, we’re actively training them. 

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