Paving the Way
On this night, there is no welcome reception. There are no carpeted floors. There are no banners brandishing logos of platinum or gold or silver sponsors. There is no fanfare. No glitz. No glamour.
And for these high school students? It’s perfect.
In fact, this night “could reshape their entire future,” Steve Rainville says.
As the teenagers and their parents filter into Northcentral Technical College on a cold, February evening in Wausau, Wis., for the school’s 10th annual Automotive Career Night, many are getting their first doses of a state-of-the-art automotive training facility outfitted with the latest lifts and equipment. As the four-hour mini-expo carries on, many will buff out a scratch for the first time. Many will pull their first dents out of hoods. Many will finally learn how to use a spray gun. Many will purchase their first toolboxes.
And most importantly to Rainville, many students will leave with some knowledge, some hope, some sense of direction for their futures in the automotive industry—who knows, maybe that involves a position at his own shop.
As the manager of Fred Mueller Automotive’s body shop, Rainville is deeply invested in the next generation of body repair men and women. It is, after all, why he helped start Automotive Career Night 10 years ago.
But tonight, 175 students didn’t show up because of one man. Rainville has remained inspired to improve the industry’s future over the past decade because of his peers—the schools, the vendors, the competing shop owners who all care about the future of this industry as much as he does. This growing city sports a flurry of educational programs, training options, scholarship offerings and job opportunities for aspiring technicians, estimators, parts managers, customer service representatives, managers, and shop owners. The adults are committed to helping the kids, proving that anybody truly passionate about recruiting the next wave of quality collision repair professionals can start with the promising talent in their own cities.
Rebecca Weisenfeld stands behind one of 25 career night booths in front of a dozen high school students, who are all curious about the relay in her hand. As she explains how this tiny device allows her to switch a high-current circuit on and off with a small amount of current, she looks into the inquisitive faces and sees herself: Just five years earlier, she was on the other side of that table, considering an education at Northcentral, both excited and (secretly) scared about her future in the auto industry.
Luckily, WATEA had her back.
Weisenfeld, currently a senior at Northcentral studying automotive, interns for the Wisconsin Automotive and Truck Education Association (WATEA), aiding the organization in developing awareness of opportunities available in the automotive industry. WATEA’s founders, Jerry Brickner and Kent Olson, started guiding students like Weisenfeld into the industry 10 years ago when their shops were struggling to find technicians.
The technician shortage is a noted problem in the industry, but it wasn’t much better 10 years ago. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the number of employed collision technicians decreased 12.1 percent between 1999 and 2005, from 179,960 to 158,160. Today, demand is only growing—the Bureau expects the need for body technicians to rise by 9 percent between 2014 and 2024.
Back in 2006, Brickner, owner of four Brickner Family Auto Group dealerships (three of which have body shops), found the problem to be directly tied to Northcentral’s struggle to receive applicants.
“We all know how tough it is to get technicians in the auto industry, and it’s only going to be harder if the schools are closing,” says Brickner.
As students maneuver between the various rooms—buffing hoods, buying tools and learning what jobs opportunities await them—it’s likely that very few of them understand that, 10 years ago, the automotive department surrounding them was almost shut down.
Northcentral wasn’t alone in experiencing stagnancy at the time. While the U.S. Department of Education reports trade schools experienced 65 percent enrollment growth between 1999 and 2006, it slowed in 2006, when revenue growth stood at an average of 5 percent, according to financial firm Sageworks.
With only a few students enrolled in the Northcentral automotive program, Brickner and WATEA decided to partner with Northcentral president Lori Weyers and dean of technical and trades Darren Ackley.
“There are mutual benefits of having partnerships like this,” Ackley says. “If they don't have a pool of technicians, their business won't be able to grow or be profitable.”
WATEA targeted high schools and convinced the town’s newest high school to open an automotive program. Ackley, Brickner and Olson, owner of a local tire and service shop, visited area high school counselors and classrooms to discuss the myriad positions available following graduation from Northcentral.
“Some kids are really passionate about this and just need a push—just a nudge to get them thinking about the possibility of a career,” Brickner says.
Growth at Northcentral began to coincide with national rates: Revenue at technical schools jumped by over 12 percent in 2009, according to Sageworks. Today, Northcentral’s automotive program is thriving and has a waiting list for applicants.
The school has helped WATEA slowly build resources aimed at guiding industry hopefuls: Its Wheels to Work program sends damaged and donated vehicles to Northcentral for work; its members give speeches at schools throughout Wisconsin; it offers scholarships and performs fundraisers; it helps shops set up apprenticeship programs; and it advises schools on course curricula.
A huge part of WATEA expanding into area high schools began by partnering with local shops for Automotive Career Night—starting with the business located right across the street from Brickner, Fred Mueller Automotive.
A few booths down from Weisenfeld is Steve Rainville, who helps a teenager buff a hood for the first time. The kid is “a natural,” the body shop manager says, and it reminds Rainville of the first demonstration he ever led seven years ago.
Automotive Career Night was in its infancy, growing from eight students the first year to a few dozen, says Mike Garvin, parts manager for Fred Mueller Automotive. He and Rainville were passionate about recruiting technicians into the shop, and had been assisting WATEA’s vision of an expo for high school students for three years.
“A lot of these students will end up with jobs at McDonald’s otherwise,” Rainville says. “They should be fixing cars and making five times the money and have a better life.”
For the first three years, Career Night puttered along. Hosted at Brickner’s dealership, students learned about shop processes, the various positions and the educational opportunities available.
The only thing missing was hands-on work the kids could practice. But when a simulator that allowed students to virtually paint a vehicle broke, Rainville stepped in to host his first demo, changing everything. Teenagers gathered around a hood to pull dents, perform some Bondo work, buff scratches out of a door and mix paint.
“It was very fun and engaging. The kids loved it,” Garvin says. “You could sense we were taking it to another level.”
“These kids won’t ever feel challenged if you don’t give them some hands-on work,” Rainville adds. “You’re giving them the opportunity to prove themselves.”
Rainville and Brickner follow up with students who show promise. They’ll invite kids to their shops, allow them to work on vehicles and shadow employees, and offer mentorship as they embark on their careers. Today, Rainville employs one of the students that went through Career Night, and regularly sets them up with jobs at area shops after graduating.
“I don’t like seeing them go,” Rainville says. “But it’s good for the industry. I’m doing my part.”
All Career Night booths now resemble Rainville’s first demo. On this night in February 2016, kids aren’t just learning about spray guns and diagnostic equipment and estimating systems—they’re using those tools, gaining some knowledge, preparing for their careers.
“I tell these kids, ‘You're an artist. If you can draw, you’re already a body man,’” Rainville says. “And then you just watch their eyes grow wide.”
The buffing demo is so inspiring to the student Rainville calls “a natural” that he walks over to the CARQUEST Auto Parts booth with his parents and buys $700 worth of buffing equipment. The booth is located in an adjoining room filled with sponsors leading their own demos, race cars on display, and students excited to buy their first tools.
“It’s one thing to host a booth—it’s another to give these kids an opportunity to buy something they can take home to use on their own cars,” Rainville says.
The “hot corner,” as it’s described by Kasey Krueger, belongs to CARQUEST Auto Parts. Krueger, manager of the local CARQUEST store in Schofield, Wisc., sponsors the event and hosts a booth where students can test out tools. It’s part of WATEA’s agreement with area parts and equipment suppliers, who offer discounted tools at Career Night and donate several thousand dollars worth of tools each year to students.
“I want to get some of the younger crowd into this business,” Krueger says. “We need to get that generation in here and get them trained so we can have people to fill our positions when we're ready to retire.”
Brickner considers this year a booming success. With 175 students, Automotive Career Night had record attendance in 2016. He saw more female students than ever, and says more and more parents accompany their children each year.
“They’re not just here to goof around. You can sense the seriousness of the event,” he says.
As the students walk away from Rebecca Weisenfeld’s booth and head into the auditorium for the closing keynote speech, she thinks about her future. She’s at the top of her class at Northcentral, which she’ll be graduating from within the year. She doesn’t know if she’ll become a technician, or move into an estimating or customer service role at an area shop. She’s contemplating owning her own shop someday. It’s all up in the air.
But because of her experience with WATEA and Northcentral and all the professionals in Wausau who clearly value her future, one thing’s for sure: No matter where she ends up in this industry, she’ll continue to work with each succeeding generation of students. She wants to—no, she needs to—continue caring about the kids. It’s not a choice for her anymore. Because at that age, everybody needs a little direction.
“I love working with these kids because I know what it’s like to have that passion I see in their eyes,” she says. “If I can help guide them into an industry I love, I’ll jump in right away.”