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Who Should Own a Shop’s Tools?

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When it comes to having a big-picture view of the autobody employment scene, few people have better top-to-bottom credentials than Eric Stevens.

Stevens “was born, raised” and “grew up” in his father’s Abilene, Texas, body shop, working with “some of the best in the business” along the way. He ran his own shop for years after that and has earned a long list of industry certifications from I-CAR, the International Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) and PPG Refinishes, among others. And now Stevens launches high schoolers’ automotive and collision repair careers as the jack-of-all-trades instructor at the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District’s top-flight Technical Education Center, whose excellence has been recognized in recent years by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation.

So who better to address the question, “Who should own technicians’ tools, the shop or the technicians themselves?”

Here, Stevens has some clear guidance, both for budding technicians and for forward-looking body shops looking to hire the best amid a nationwide technician shortage: Students, invest in your own tools if you can possibly swing it.

And, body shops, you might want to think more about ways to help your most promising new technicians do just that.

“It’s best if an employee starts off with at least a good starter set of tools so you have something of your own to use when you’re just getting started, but a lot of new employees won’t be able to do that immediately,” Stevens says, noting that depending on a new tech’s repair area, even a basic starter set can run between $2,500 and $10,000.

“The cost is what creates the problem, so some shops will actually help them buy their tools, financially, and then they pay the shop back for them over time. At the same time, I’d say most shops just want them to supply their own. The advantage for shops is, number one, they don’t have to pay for them that way, and, number two, a shop owner knows that if new technicians are responsible for their own tools, they’ll tend to take better care of them.”

Stevens estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the shops in Texas —and likely across the rest of the nation—fall into the own-your-own-tools category, with perhaps 5 percent offering some kind of tool-purchase assistance and another 5 percent pairing a new “apprentice” tech with a veteran, whose tools the youngster is allowed to use.

Tool sharing, though, is only a short-term solution, of course, for a reason that anyone who works with their hands understands: “The downfall is that a lot of techs just don’t like some new kid using their tools for very long,” Stevens notes.

A RECRUITING INCENTIVE?

Stevens suspects that the sheer cost of tools is itself a factor in the nation’s dearth of qualified entry-level technicians, and he’s a little surprised at the fact that so many shops do not use some kind of tool-buying assistance as a way to attract top talent.

He also notes that with the ever-increasing pace of technological change in the industry, it’s tougher than ever for any technician—even the most seasoned veterans—to keep up with the kind of tools that are needed on the job.

“This is one of the biggest issues we’re facing in the industry—the shortage of technicians,” Stevens says. “So, sure, we can send them to school to learn the trade, but, then, are we going to help them pay for tools they’ll need—because some ‘newbies’ just won’t be able to do it on their own?”

Stevens has noticed some encouraging recent trends among shop owners, however. Some, for example, are even willing to subsidize a promising future technician’s autobody education—at either the high-school or tech-school level—as a way to encourage their development as top-of-the-market entry-level employees.

It’s also a way for a shop benefactor to kill two birds with one stone, Stevens explains, since formal autobody training not only develops talent, it also can be an avenue to tool discounts. Many collision repair educational programs, including the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Technical Education Center, for example, have special deals with the nation’s best tool manufacturers.

At the same time, any shop’s education- and tool-assistance decisions should balance the cost of the assistance against the likely payoff when a new technician is brought into the full-time employment fold.

“Everything on the shop side is time-sensitive,” Stevens explains. “In other words, how long should you give a newbie a chance to get it together before you know whether they’ll work out and be a valuable addition to the business, or whether you have to cut your losses and try someone else? How much is that newbie going to make for the business to offset the cost of their tools, and how quickly do you want your newbies to be 100 percent self-sufficient with their tools?”

NEW GRADUATES, NEW TOOLS

Technician shortage aside, new entry-level professionals should still do everything they can to have their own tools as they hit the employment trail, Stevens advises; it’ll give them a valuable marketing advantage, even in a seller’s market.

Stevens compares it to the choice between a job candidate who shows up at an interview unshaven and disheveled versus another candidate who arrives bright-eyed and looking like a million bucks.
“That’s the bottom line,” he says. “You can have all sorts of certifications when you apply for a job, but if you’re really going into the industry hoping to become the best, you’re going to have a better chance if you can present yourself as someone who has all of their ducks in order. And, in this industry, tools can be a part of that.”

Like shop-owner choices about tool-buying and education assistance, choosing the optimal starter set is also a balancing act, Stevens adds: There are, of course, low-end and high-end options, so matching your mix to your budget is another talent that newcomers should try to maximize up-front.

And don’t forget tool insurance, Stevens adds, noting that while some shops cover all of their technicians’ tools, many do not.

“It’s just like buying a car—a lot of kids don’t think about insurance at first, only the price of the car,” Stevens notes. “Just remember, your tools are your livelihood, so you need to choose them, take car of them and protect them as best you can.”

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