Inspire New Recruits While Changing the Narrative

Feb. 19, 2024
The more shops that run apprentice programs, the better it will be for everyone in the industry, say these two operators.

The shortage of technicians in the industry is nothing new — it’s been talked about at every industry event under the sun for the last 10+ years, says Sean Guthrie, chief operating officer at OpenRoad Collision. 

The solution, according to both Guthrie and John Gustafson, president of Gustafson Brothers, Inc. in Huntington Beach, California, is apprenticeship…and both men are passionate about championing programs that not only attract but retain new talent for the industry long-term. 

Here’s a look at how they’re doing it. 

Responding to the Need 

“Every shop should have an apprentice, in my opinion,” Guthrie says. When structured properly and utilized correctly, he says, apprentices have a very minimal impact financially on a shop for the first year, “and then they start paying for themselves in year two.” 

It’s Guthrie’s goal to train one apprentice per OpenRoad location per year — a “lofty” goal, he admits, “and I also understand I may be training technicians for our competitors…but the industry needs technicians, and I won’t sit around waiting for the next guy to do it!” 

Gustafson felt much the same way when he decided to start his apprenticeship program to combat the tech shortage. It was a response to market pressure, he said, and his way to be a part of the solution both for his own shop and the industry as a whole. 

“It’s the same way we’ve operated for the past 52 years,” he says. “Whatever comes up, whatever issue comes up, we identify, discuss and solve it.” 

Creating Opportunity for Growth 

The key to creating a successful program, says Guthrie, is engaging the apprentice, demonstrating growth potential, and setting clear expectations.  

“The apprentice has to be shown that there really is a ladder, a plan, to get them from where they are today to where they want to be tomorrow,” he explained. “It’s critical that when they are brought on, that path is laid out and a clear expectation of the timeline is agreed to by all parties.” 

Failure to do so, he says, can result in the apprentice feeling stuck, which can lead to a loss of motivation…and eventually may lead to them leaving the industry all together. Guthrie says he also stopped buying into the idea that this generation of apprentices needs to be treated differently than their predecessors — it’s the motivation and opportunity for growth that truly matters, in his opinion. 

“A car lover today is still the same as an older generation,” he says, although he concedes there are fewer people interested in cars nowadays than there used to be. “Hard workers today are the same as yesterday. It is about finding the right person and providing them the best opportunity to succeed. I think it is important for owners and managers to understand what motivates their employees.” 

Among the various books and research he’s read on the matter, one thing, he says, is unanimous across the board — challenging work that provides career growth always outranks compensation. 

“It doesn’t matter the age of the research group…if you provide people a career ladder in the field they’re interested in, they will be motivated, and motivated employees are good employees. As leaders, we must stop blaming ‘a generational issue’ and focus on being good leaders to the people.” 

Building Sustainable Apprenticeship Programs 

To ensure that expectations are being met and apprentices are on track to meet their goals, a clear-cut plan with regular check-ins and progress assessments is imperative, Guthrie says. 

That’s exactly the approach Gustafson takes as he continues to build his program from the ground up. 

“We’re learning through every stage of the process,” he says. “We feel like the pioneers crossing the Plains and the Rockies!” 

Gustafson’s program begins with an internship phase, where students are introduced to the industry through coursework accredited by the local high school, or through automotive orientation classes Gustafson runs himself. Interns are unpaid, and the focus is simply on helping young adults determine whether a career in the industry is right for them.  

From there, those who are interested can enter the paid apprenticeship program, where they’ll progress from apprentice to mentee over the course of approximately two years. During that time, apprentices work through a “couple hundred” tasks, first observing the task then completing the task supervised, then unsupervised, and finally mastering it…at which time they could teach someone else how to do it. Mentors guide them through the entire process. Guthrie uses a very similar structure at OpenRoad, both of which are rooted in what’s now the I-CAR training model.  

Apprentices are paid minimum wage to start, then pay is increased at six-month intervals until eventually the shop and mentor split the mentee’s wage 50/50. Benefits are included as well. 

The program focuses heavily on “constant engagement” with apprentices to keep them invested in what they’re learning. Each morning starts with an hour of classroom instruction, and shop mentors work closely with each person one-on-one to develop their skills and knowledge. Apprentices also provide feedback every two weeks on what’s working and what’s not so processes can be refined.  

 “We’re really attempting to prevent burnout — we don’t want to invest training time and money only to have people leave the industry. Like I said, we’re pioneering, experimenting. We don't know if it's going to work long-term, but we're going down the path to see if we can make it work.” 

Gustafson’s ultimate hope is that the program will indeed be successful and can be disseminated throughout the industry to other shops who can model programs after his own. 

“The goal is to find other shops like us across the country, champion shops, that would do what we’re doing, and have a recruiter place those trained mentees in the end,” says Gustafson.  

The proof, he says, will come in seeing whether the apprentices can help the mentors make more money, even after they pay the apprentice’s share. The system would reduce cycle time in the long run, as the mentor and mentee work together as a team to complete more work, faster. 

Gustafson readily acknowledges that the cost to run a comprehensive program like the one he’s attempting is substantial at first, but he has high hopes that the payoff will be well worth it in the end. He even sees potential for grants and government assistance for shop owners if he can prove the concept. 

“We’re talking about a six-figure salary for these apprentices in five to seven years with no college debt…that’s a boon to society.” 

“If we prove the method and we get champion shops around the country — and maybe Canada and Mexico — then we continue to fill up our industry with the people we need to get the job done,” he says. 

Finding Apprentice Candidates 

For both Gustafson and Guthrie — and anyone running an apprenticeship program — finding high quality candidates is key. Gustafson has had success through local schools and youth nonprofits, referrals from current employees, and marketing through the company newsletter. 

Guthrie says OpenRoad targets car shows, drift events, drag races, and dirt tracks to identify people who already have an appreciation for the industry. 

“If you’re passionate about what you do you, will never work a day in your life…those are the employees you want!” 

He even looks at the car a candidate drives in with, and their hands, to look for clues that they’re a car lover. “I can always tell who will be a good apprentice because they drive in with a car that’s being worked on and their hands are dirty,” he says. 

Another element Guthrie has found helpful in getting apprentices underway? Supplying them with tools. “That speeds up the process substantially, as most candidates for the program simply can’t afford the basic tools required to learn and begin growing,” he explains. 

However you do it, the important thing is to start, say both men…the more owners who run apprentice programs, the better it will be for everyone in the industry. 

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