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Coming Up Short

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Ask most collision repair operators what their greatest challenges are and their responses would surely include getting new staff, especially technicians.

It may even be their first and most significant challenge. Many of us give our time and resources to help support vocational technical schools, assist in recruiting exercises, offer internships and hire untrained people in an effort to bring more people into our industry. It’s what we should all be doing for the good of the industry. And because of the shortage of candidates, it is what many of us have to do to get new people. We simply don’t have a choice.

Yet when I speak to recruiters, technical school administrators and counselors, there is one big factor that restricts our efforts: The average starting pay for new graduates in our industry lags well behind other comparable trades. Carpenters, plumbers, machinists and welders post a higher starting level of compensation. The fact that body and paint technicians can make more than other trades after years of perfecting their skills and increasing their productivity is a rarely visited statistic and garners less attention for those choosing a new trade. To make matters worse, most technicians are expected to provide their own tools, which can be a monumental expense for an entry level person.

To some extent, it is understandable why this occurs. New graduates often have very limited skills and productivity levels that are a fraction of a proficient journeyman’s. I am sure most of us have heard many times from new technicians that they learn more in the first few months of working in a shop than they did in two years of technical school.

As business operators, we tend to think of compensating staff in terms of what they produce in short periods, such as one or two weeks. As a result, we often compensate these people at a rate comparable to or a little more than what they may make in a fast food restaurant or convenience store.

This structure allows us to reward those technicians over a period of time by increasing their compensation as their skills and productivity grows. It’s gratifying for all of us and provides an incentive for the technician to continue growing. It all seems to fit, work well and make sense. That is, until we realize we’ve cut ourselves—and our industry—short by providing reasons for entry-level people to choose a different trade.

There is no simple answer to this dilemma. If technical schools produced graduates with a higher level of capability, it would help. But their task is not easy to accomplish already. I hear from some instructors that they have the lowest caliber of entry-level students they’ve ever experienced, largely because there are far fewer amateurs and enthusiasts who work on their own vehicles and thus have some basic understanding of auto repair. Many new students have hardly turned a wrench and have little idea what they are getting into.

Simply increasing compensation levels for newly hired graduates would obviously help, but collision repair shops often operate on modest profit margins and insurers keep us at competitive rates.

I don’t see anyone or any entity coming to our rescue and changing the situation. Market conditions will help, but will not solve the issue in the foreseeable future. Supply and demand conditions will cause the technician shortage to drive up overall compensation, and eventually, there will be more techs as a result of higher earnings, especially if entry-level compensation goes up. But that could take years.

Many consolidators and MSOs are responding to the issue by training people that come with little or no training. Some are even setting up their own training departments or academies. This takes more candidates from the pool that may otherwise wind up in a technical school or apply at your shop. In other words, the situation is becoming more challenging and it is up to each of us as repairers to embrace this problem and find creative solutions.

Entry-level pay is a big part of it. There are other options, too, including assisting entry-level techs with school tuition, assisting them with tool purchases and providing some training from your existing staff. Doing our own recruiting, in addition to participating in formal recruiting functions should be part of the effort, as well. It is up to us to take control.

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