Running a Shop Education+Training Apprenticeship+Mentoring

You Can Always Do More

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As the owner of four Conner Brothers Body Shops surrounding Richmond, Va., Kevin Conner’s top priority is giving back to his community. That goodwill has led to Conner employing special needs individuals with varying disabilities through the Virginia Commonwealth University Rehabilitation Research and Training Center.

And Conner says Kristie Walthall has been instrumental to the collaboration.

Hired as a customer service advisor just two years ago, Walthall has worked with the university’s Worksupport program to bring special needs individuals into the shops. She is currently training three special needs students on office procedures and setting them up for future employment.

“With everything that goes on in her area of responsibility, she makes time for those who are less fortunate,” Conner says. “She was never tasked with this duty—she assumed it willingly. She continues to embrace new opportunities, showing her desire to be a great leader. I am blessed to have someone as dedicated as her in my ranks.”

In light of the shortage of quality employees plaguing the collision repair industry, Conner's efforts show there are always more avenues for finding future employees. And through three simple steps, Walthall says you can mentor anyone with enough coaching and patience.

The Program

For the past six years, the Virginia Commonwealth program has worked with local small businesses to provide jobs for special needs students. The Midlothian Conner Brothers location, where Walthall works, is where Conner tests different versions of the program.

“The cool thing about the program is that they match the people with special needs to the job,” she says. “They’re all pre-screened and ready to work. It’s just up to me to help them become a self-sustaining worker.”

Because of Walthall and the rest of her team’s dedication and patience, Conner Brothers was awarded Small Employer of the Year for 2015 by the Association of People Supporting Employment First (APSE) for the state of Virginia, and was a runner-up for the national organization this past June.

Step 1: Set Goals

The program works with businesses to set expectations and production standards trainees must meet during internships.

“Through a relationship with the university, we have folks who help support certain special staff with learning their duties,” Conner says. “Kristie helps by identifying duties they can perform and creating the job description for them.”

At Conner Brothers, interns must answer phone calls, ask certain questions about the vehicle, QC a certain number of cars per week, and understand the shop network’s lean processes model.

“I think that helps both them and me to have some goals and things to work toward,” Walthall says.

Step 2: Be Passionate

After the university sets students up at the shop, Walthall takes over, training them on day-to-day duties and coaching them to success. And it’s Walthall’s enthusiasm for her work, Conner says, that motivates the students.

“If we have a challenge in a particular area, she is quick to help address it,” Conner says. “It’s interesting to see her work with these individuals. Many times you can hear her say how much she enjoys—to use her term, ‘loves’—a particular person. I can see the joy on her face when she sees one of the folks succeed in their job duties.”

Step 3: Be Patient

Above all else, Walthall says to remember that everybody learns and excels at different rates.

“The most important thing to remember is to be patient,” she says. “Before you can really teach anything, you need to understand how people work. From my background as a teacher in early childhood education, I know it’s all about adaptability. Everyone learns things differently, and it’s just about recognizing that and then reacting.”

“I knew nothing about cars when I started here, and it’s taken me about two years to fully understand the process,” she adds. “All you can do is help them get really good at a few things and then they’ll become more versatile over time. For me, it’s now about passing on that knowledge and helping them find the passion I have.”

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