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Ask any collision repairer to name one of the biggest issues facing the industry today and chances are he or she will mention the technician shortage. The average age of technicians is increasing, and with many of these workers nearing retirement, shops have been struggling to find ways to attract new talent. Recently, one of the largest MSOs in the country found a way to solve this problem and is attracting new recruits in record numbers.

For the past three years, ABRA Auto Body & Glass has been working on targeting talent to address the shortage of skilled laborers in the collision repair industry. Its latest initiative, ABRA’s Career Development Academy in Eagan, Minn., is its most aggressive yet. The program is an accelerated training program that guarantees employment at an ABRA shop upon graduation. For the initial class of 10 students, David Kuhl, ABRA’s chief people officer, was hoping for an applicant pool of between 50 and 75 to choose from.

In all, 425 were submitted.

Some argue that having 425 applicants for 10 spots could indicate that the talent shortage is not as dire as many in the industry tend to believe. How was ABRA able to do it?

Eliminate Barriers

Mike Willis, director of training and development for ABRA, explains that the program was created to facilitate students that are passionate about the industry but may have had to drop out because of the cost of attending a technical school or due to a lack of resources. When doing research and talking to potential students, Claire Giancola-Belmares, ABRA’s talent outreach director, discovered that the cost of tuition and materials was one of the leading causes for people either not pursuing or dropping out of a career in the collision repair industry. Armed with this knowledge, ABRA made it its mission to create a program that would eliminate these obstacles for students.

Along with free tuition, all of the materials the students require are provided. When the students graduate, they are given a toolkit valued around $3,000. Room and board is provided for out-of-town students.

Dan Libby, 35, was a part of ABRA’s first class of students. Libby is from the Chicago area and ABRA put him up in a nearby hotel, which meant he didn’t have to worry about living expenses. ABRA even provides the students with lunch every day.

Financial Security

For many potential technicians, Kuhl explains that taking time off to go back to school and missing out on earning a living wage is the reason many of the students hadn’t already pursued a career in the collision repair industry. ABRA developed its program with this in mind.

The academy is a five-week course that combines classroom and shop experience. The students attend Monday through Friday, 8 a.m to 4:30 p.m., and Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon. Willis says that the program was designed to get the students into the shop and producing as quickly as possible. Students attend the academy tuition free and are paid $11 per hour while attending. After graduation, the students are guaranteed a job at an ABRA shop where they receive a pay increase and work as apprentices until the shop signs off on them as a C-level technicians, which Willis says will take approximately 45 days.

A Springboard

Willis explains that the academy differs from traditional apprenticeships due to the speed of the program and how it’s set up. The five-week slate of courses is packed with information, but not enough to create technicians that are ready to work on their own. Having a program set up this way provides an option for people who need to be able to earn a living right away. It is meant to be a springboard to get students into a shop and be productive, but also help them identify what role they see themselves in. Although the majority of the students will choose to go the traditional route of the academy and become body techs, Kuhl says that ABRA identifies candidates for positions like estimators and promotes from within to the leadership team all of the time. The academy has been set up to identify and funnel those students who would be a good fit.

Mass Appeal

ABRA is consciously trying to get applicants from different backgrounds to create diversity. The academy has admitted students that have attended technical school, students that have grown up around cars and a few that have no experience at all. Kuhl says the next class of students has two women in it. So what’s the one quality that these students have in common, the one thing that ABRA looks for? Passion, says Willis.

Libby and Keeren Nicholls, 33, are two of the 10 students admitted to the program’s first class. The two come from different backgrounds and have different experience levels, but both say they are thrilled to have found an opportunity like this.

Nicholls was born in England and attended art school for one year after graduating from high school. After attending school, he moved to the U.S. and began working in the automotive industry. Nicholls heard about the program through a friend at his church. Libby is a father of four with a fifth on the way, and was looking for a better life for his family. When he heard about the academy, Libby knew it was what he had been looking for.

“The opportunity sets it apart,” Libby says. “Everyone is so good about taking care of our needs. I can’t stress enough what they’ve done for me and my family.”

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