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Build an Apprentice Program that Grows Talent

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At the 2015 NACE/CARS Expo & Conference’s MSO Symposium in Detroit this July, a panel of multi-shop operators and industry educators discussed strategies for recruiting talented employees and dismissing the notion that good staff is impossible to find.

The panel, moderated by Darrell Amberson of Twin Cities-based LaMettry’s, included Matt Sorensen of Keenan Auto Body, an ABRA Company; Brandon Eckenrode of the Collision Repair Education Foundation; Jeff Peevy of the Automotive Management Institute, and Kevin Burnett of Gerber Collision and Glass.

During the panel, Peevy encouraged shops not to be a victim to the technician shortage and actively look for ways to develop a learning culture and grow new talent in their shops. For some MSOs, that solution has been formalized apprentice programs.

The panel outlined the success of programs such as Keenan’s Collision Repair Opportunity Program (CROP), which helps students in local technical high schools enter the collision repair industry. They've graduated four students so far and the application rate has doubled year after year for the past three. Gerber is also working on an apprenticeship program in a dedicated facility that will spend six to 12 months training and testing students and instilling the company’s culture.

In June, Service King Collision Repair Centers announced the launch of its Service King Apprentice Development Program, a highly immersive, fully compensated, 52-week training course developed to prepare incoming technicians for careers at Service King. The program launches in Houston with plans to expand to Texas, California and Georgia by the end of 2015.

“Our goal is not only to find the right person for the short term job, but to find someone who wants to find a long-term career,” says Tyra Bremer, vice president of talent development at Service King. “We’re looking for the long-term solutions to be teammates with Service King.”

 Lee Rush, business consultant at Sherwin-Williams Automotive Finishes, and Bremer discuss the keys to implementing an effective apprentice program that grows long-term employees.

Benefits of Apprentice Programs

For most shop owners, the technician shortage experienced in the industry is no secret.

“I think we are all aware of the challenges in the industry with regards to our current tech base,” says Rush. “The average age is increasing, therefore retirements are approaching and have approached. Our tech base is beginning to exit the industry and newer technicians are coming in at a lesser rate. To compound the issue, the pace of technology in the industry and the demands on the technician are also increasing.”

Some of the benefits of an apprentice program are obvious, such as growing new talent in the shop and creating skilled workers that also fit in well with the company culture. However, Rush says an added benefit to an apprentice program is allowing higher-skilled technicians to work on higher-skilled functions in the shop.

“Often, shops believe they have a tech shortage in their shop. in reality, we are misappropriating how we deploy our tech labor,” he says. “Let’s say you have a 20-year veteran who is an A-tech, certified and trained. We have him removing the adhesive off a body side moulding. There are operations we have high-skilled techs doing when they should be focused on the higher-skilled metal operations, frame and unibody and so forth. An apprentice can supplement that.”

On the same token, Bremer says an apprentice program also provides an additional career path for current, successful technicians.

“Those are the ones that want to share their immense knowledge and their passion for the industry,” she says. “It’s two birds with one stone in this approach.”

Finally, she says the program allows shops to introduce new technicians into the company culture early and mold them to fit in well and understand the company culture.

“It’s an opportunity for us to welcome new techs to Service King that have little industry experience,” Breme says. “We get the opportunity to train and develop them. And at the same time, embrace them into our culture.”

Keys to an Effective Program

Above all else, the key to an effective apprentice program is that it needs to be structured and have goals.

“The truth is that for years, we’ve hired these young men and young women, stuck them in a wash bay in the back of the shop or had them sweep the floor with no clear development plan,” Rush says. “With the millennials, we need a written plan. Washing cars is not top of their list. “

Rush and Bremer outline the top five keys that every apprentice program needs to have:

1) Create a written plan. It doesn’t matter if it’s a two-page or 10-page plan, Rush says, as long as there is a written plan that explains the goals, the requirements and the expectations. For Service King’s program, Bremer says the company worked with shop staff members to make sure the program had the correct on-the-job training and instruction, and that it was current and comprehensive.

Next, the plan should also outline the technical or process tasks that the apprentice should be able to do. Rush says that you can take this directly from your P-pages.

“It might start with the simplest terms: ‘Apprentice is able to utilize battery charger with supervision and then without supervision.’ You start at a very basic level,” he says. “When I talk about this list, this list is 100-plus repair tasks long.”

The Service King program also makes it a point to include personal development activities, such as communication training.

“It’s continuing to enhance things like their communication abilities, time management. Those are things that someone might have the foundation to do, but because of the personal development activities, it really helps take their game to the next level,” Bremer says.

Rush says that the plan should also outline what you would like the apprentice to be able to accomplish by a certain time frame (30, 60, 90 days, or by the end of the year).

“By the time an apprentice is in the program, they understand the goals you’re trying to obtain,” he says. “If they think they’re ready, you would simply look at your list and say, ‘Are you able to install a quarter panel without supervision?’ It frames where they are and gives them hope and vision on where they’re going.”

2) Compensate properly. Rush says that the primary challenge for apprentice programs has traditionally been compensation. Shops may need to make some changes to their pay structure or add a few more administrative tasks. Rush says there are a couple compensation methods that work particularly well for apprentice programs.

"One of them is simply if there is an apprentice tech team, they do it like paint shops do it with their preppers. It’s a percentage. You take all the labor hours and the apprentice gets a smaller percentage of those labor hours,” he says.

Another method, which requires more administrative work, is paying the apprentice for the line items that he performs. Finally, the other method would be an hourly or salary compensation for the apprentice. That’s the method that Service King has chosen for their program and Bremer says it was a purposeful choice.

“The great news is that effective day one, they are considered a Service King teammate,” she says. “They are already a full-time employee at Service King. They get to participate in the same competitive benefits program. Upon completion of this program, they already are a teammate and have been for one year.”

If necessary, Rush suggests that shops can flag one hour per job back to the shop to cover the cost of an hourly apprentice.

3) Recruit heavily and look for passion. Bremer says that of all areas, the recruitment process has been the largest area to tackle.

“One of the things that is alarming is that not very many people understand how lucrative and rewarding a career in the industry can be,” she says. “We’ve been taking the time to slow down and illustrate to them and making sure that we’re educating parents, educating educational facilities, educating individuals seeking rewarding careers.”

When looking for apprentices, Service King has been targeting individuals who have made the decision already to pursue an education within the collision repair industry and then underscoring to them the career pathing opportunities, financial recognition, investment in continuous education and development.

Rush says to remember that many apprentices likely won’t have lengthy resumes, so primarily look for entry-level technical skills and an ability to function within basic business rules.

“Explain that we come to work on time, we treat each other professionally, we have clearly defined responsibilities,” he says. “You have this conversation with them and assess how they respond.”

“There are soft skills that come hand in hand with those technical abilities,” Bremer says. “Those could be strong work ethic, having proven ambition, someone who works well on a team and individually. They need to be confident and passionate and really take pride in their work.”

4) Find the right mentor. To find the right mentor, first look for a desire or a spark.

“You recognize it sometimes on the shop floor,” Rush says. “He happens to be across the way in another bay helping a tech. Or the techs come over and ask, ‘Can you take a look at this?’ There’s a mentorship there already.”

Bremer says the mentor needs to be someone who is passionate about the industry and about developing others; possess patience and a positive attitude; and is an effective communicator.

On the technical side, she says the mentor also needs to have attained a certain level of skill and is recognized within the shop and the industry as having mastered those skills.

5) Create a feedback loop. Finally, the apprentice program should contain regular meetings with the mentor and management. It could be as frequent as once a week at the beginning and monthly as time goes on, but Rush says that you should be regularly checking with the responsibilities and accountabilities of the program.

“You can’t just flippantly throw them in the shop and leave it up to a collision technician to ensure success. That needs to be pretty well defined,” he says. “It needs to be a regular cadence.”

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