Reversing the Stigma

Feb. 1, 2017
It’s time for the the industry to collectively alter how it markets collision repair to students and parents

Two-hundred students and teachers are packed into a room at the 2016 SEMA Show. By the end of the evening, $750,000 has been donated to CTE programs across the country. The Collision Repair Education Foundation is closing out the event by honoring two select students—the best of the best, the future of the collision repair industry.

And all eyes are on Anna Michalski.

“Two years ago, I didn’t really know what I was doing,” she says, standing at a podium, speaking to the crowd. “I was a teenager—nobody knows what they are doing at that age. I was really lost.”

One month later, sitting in a classroom, readying for her final semester at the Western Area Career & Technology Center (WACTC) in Canonsburg, Pa., Michalski and her collision repair instructor, John Warabow, discuss the state of education in the industry with FenderBender. They speak of teenagers that believe trade occupations are for the “dumb” kids; shop owners that cry about the lack of talent; parents that would rather see their children attend four-year universities. And one word continually creeps into the dialogue: stigma.

There’s a stigma about kids going to tech schools.
We’ve been trying for years to get away from the stigma.
There’s a stigma that has to be broken.

This stigma exists among parents, students and business owners searching for quality employees amidst a crippling shortage of them. And every time that word is uttered, it’s abundantly clear that Michalski believes that feeling she spoke about one month earlier in a room filled with her peers is the real problem.

I was really lost.

But Michalski and Warabow, along with many shop owners, instructors and organizations that are fighting to reverse the stigma, aren’t just complaining—they have a solution, a multi-pronged solution that involves educating students and parents on the advantages collision repair offers, and rethinking the way this industry collectively attracts talent.

Hire Special Needs Employees

Because special needs employees have become integral team members, Kevin Conner says hiring people with disabilities is a great way of solving two problems.

The first problem being, of course, the dwindling interest in collision repair positions. But also consider the unemployment rate for people with a disability, which stood at 10.7 percent in 2015, while the rate for those without a disability declined to 5.1 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I think other owners would benefit from understanding the interaction that the staff experiences every day with a special needs employee,” Conner says. “They’ve become as much of a team member as anyone else.”

Visit for more information on hiring special needs employees.

The Stark Reality

You know the numbers—you’ve probably heard them over and over. 

Still, here they are: The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics says the number of employed collision technicians decreased 12.1 percent between 1999 and 2005, yet expects the need to rise 9 percent between 2014 and 2024. 

Even worse: Economic and labor research firm Emsi reports less than 9 percent of technicians are under 25. ManpowerGroup’s “Talent Shortage Survey” says 32 percent of trade employers had difficulty filling jobs due to lack of talent. 

Throw in that there are currently 5.8 million unfilled trade position openings, according to the Bureau, and you’ve got a whole mess of numbers plaguing the collision repair industry. And while those statistics are troubling, one number worries Warabow even more.

“My budget was cut to $5,000 this year,” he says. “So we’re in a panic mode. We’re doing the best we can on $5,000.”

It’s not just WACTC—where Warabow has taught collision repair for 30 years—that’s suffering. Brandon Eckenrode, director of development at the Collision Repair Education Foundation, says the problem is widespread, and it’s contributing to the fact that collision repair training programs graduate only 10-15 percent of their students.

“Technical education programs’ budgets are being slashed across the country,” he says. “And it’s up to shop owners to get involved and help out.”

With fewer students entering trade positions—collision repair in particular—it will only become more difficult to procure funding for educational programs, Eckenrode says. Which means the future of this industry hinges on its ability to reverse that stigma Michalski spoke about.

Eckenrode isn’t necessarily talking about donations, which help technical programs purchase updated equipment as vehicles become increasingly more complex. While anyone can donate to the foundation—many donations handed out at the 2016 SEMA Show came from insurance companies and large corporations in the automotive aftermarket—to help spread its reach, Eckenrode says, more importantly, the shop owner’s role involves a grassroots approach: getting into schools and changing the discussion with students, guidance counselors, teachers and parents.

How you choose to work with schools? Well, that’s where you can get creative. 

Look Outside Your Region

The Connecticut Technical High School System represents 18 different technical high schools in Connecticut—that’s 18 programs actively seeking to place their top students in businesses willing to collaborate.

“I didn’t even know we had that many schools before I started working with [CTHSS],” Lisa Siembab says. “You tend to only know what’s in your direct market.”

Don’t just restrict yourself to area schools. Contact programs across the state and discuss what you can offer, whether it’s setting up a student with an apprenticeship or full-time employment.

Viable Options

“My name is Maurice Gray. I’m a Conner Brothers employee. My job here is mostly cleaning up, making sure the building looks great. When the technicians need me to help work on the cars with them, I’ll do that.”

“What do you do for Recycled Rides?” inquires Kevin Conner, sitting across the table from Gray.

“Sometimes,” Gray responds as a big smile spreads across his face, “they’ll tell me to hand over the keys and present the car to the recipient.” 

Conner, owner of Conner Brothers Body Shop locations in Richmond, Va. (three of the four locations were sold to Caliber Collision by the publishing of this article), hired Gray through the Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) WorkSupport program, which helps people with disabilities find meaningful employment. Conner has filmed this YouTube video to promote the practice.

Gray, an employee with Conner Brothers for two years, is autistic, and one of eight employees Conner hired through VCU’s initiative that have filled administrative and technical positions. And while not everyone from the WorkSupport program has worked out, Conner says hardworking employees like Gray have the necessary attitude for improving processes and culture, proving there are always viable options when you think outside traditional recruiting methods. 

“We’re all in the same boat across the country, and that boat is not going to turn around very quickly,” he says. “As small business owners, we are running hard every day, but we need to make time for finding the real talent out there—the people who are willing to work hard for us.”

Take Lisa Siembab—owner of CARSTAR Berlin in Berlin, Conn., and executive director of ASA-Connecticut—who, in addition to hiring several Hispanic technicians to her team, represents the collision repair industry on the Connecticut Technical High School System (CTHSS) to improve curriculum at technical high schools and set up apprenticeships throughout the state.

“The state has never had this kind of representation from the industry,” she says. “We formed this group late last year, and it’s opened up the lines of communication for me with the instructors and the principals.”

Dave Kapitulik, educational consultant for CTHSS’s transportation programs, has worked with industry professionals like Siembab to form action plans for increasing student engagement and improving technology at technical programs across the state. Their goal is to reach students early—before high school, if possible—to promote trade positions.

“A lot of high schools have an exploratory program during freshman year, meaning many students are planning their careers before we can get to them,” he says. “We have to recruit all the way down to eighth grade to get kids to come to our schools.”

Promote CTE Programs

Backed by a great amount of research from Gallup, Dave Kapitulik says you should present technical programs as the rule, not the exception. Here are some facts CTHSS uses:

  • 80 percent of students taking college preparatory academic curriculum with technical education programs met college and career readiness goals, versus 63 percent of those without CTE.
  • Students attending technical high schools have demonstrated higher rates of on-time graduation and credit accumulation.
  • Students attending CTE high schools have a greater likelihood of successfully finishing college preparatory math.
  • The average high school graduation rate for CTE students is 93 percent, versus only 80 percent for the national graduation rate.
  • A ratio of one CTE class for every two academic classes minimizes the risk of high school dropouts. 

Getting the Word Out

Anna Michalski recalls, clear as day, the moment that sparked her interest: Two WACTC seniors standing in her high school classroom, discussing a technical education versus a traditional four-year university.

“I remember it was cool to me because they already had jobs,” she recalls. “And I was like, ‘They’re making good money while going to school. Why wouldn’t you do this?’”

So now, on the cusp of graduating herself, Michalski is visiting high schools and junior highs throughout the state, equipped with the knowledge and strategies necessary for sparking interest for technical programs among parents and students and improving recruitment in the industry. 

And as someone who had never turned a wrench before enlisting in the collision repair program at WACTC, she’s thinks the right message could sway just about any student searching for a career path.

Enlist Millennials

As evidenced by Michalski’s story: While shop owners need to facilitate change, they aren’t always necessarily the right people to motivate students.

“I think in high school, no matter what they’re talking about during a presentation on careers, you’re probably tuning out the person if they’re over a certain age,” she says. “You really relate more to students.”

Warabow and Michalski suggest enlisting entry-level employees at your shop and students at local technical colleges to speak with younger students, in hopes of recruiting them to not just technical positions, but administrative ones as well. Develop game plans and discuss the strategies you’ll use to increase interest.

Talk About Money

The ability to make money sooner and accrue less debt is a huge selling point for students, and even moreso for parents, Michalski says.

There’s just one problem: Starting salaries for collision repair graduates are generally trumped by other professions, Kapitulik says.

“It’s not to say they couldn’t make a great salary eventually—because if they’re driven, they will,” he says. “But why would a student attend a collision repair class when his buddy is going to make $27 an hour as an electrician?”

On average, Kapitulik says collision repair graduates in Connecticut make $13 per hour. So there’s no way around it: Either promote collision repair without mentioning pay, or change the way you compensate entry-level technicians. 

Become a Community Advocate

As Conner discusses all the philanthropy he performs for the city of Richmond, he reveals how he has so much pull with local technical programs.

“When I go places around town, people tend to recognize me,” he says. “When I go into schools, counselors will want to listen to what I have to say.”

Reversing the stigma involves being a community leader, Conner says. Show you’re invested in the betterment of everyone, and people will be more likely to return the favor. Then secure meetings with high school guidance counselors and discuss the advantages of promoting CTE programs for students.

Discuss Interviewing Skills

As a community advocate herself, Siembab has found success helping students improve their interview skills. 

“A lot of kids have never done a single mock interview before entering college,” she says. “So instead of just sitting there, I teach them to form eye contact, how to shake the employer’s hand, and how to ask questions—all in all, proper etiquette for interviews.”

In the end, it’s true grassroots marketing: You’re not necessarily promoting your shop—you’re presenting yourself as the expert, and instilling in students collision repair as a legitimate profession.

And for Siembab, it’s working. She’s brought on several apprentices through CTHSS, and has helped many more secure jobs at collision repair shops around the state.

Use Technology as a Selling Point

As advancing vehicle technology continues to shape the industry, it will also continue to be a blessing for recruitment, Warabow and Michalski say from the WACTC classroom.

“These days, they aren’t just cars. They’re—”

“Computers,” Michalski chimes in, finishing Warabow’s sentence.

“Yes—drivable computers,” he adds.

Over his 30 years of teaching, Warabow knows that now, more than ever, entry-level technicians need to be proficient with vehicle computer systems and diagnostics.

“We have a totaled 2015 Chrysler 200 up on the frame rack, and they’re using frame machines and lasering systems,” he says of his students. “They’re doing things they never dreamed of. The bright ones, the ones that want to succeed, they understand what they can accomplish in this profession.”

“It would be cool if we talked more about the technology. That would attract more kids that are into computers,” Michalski adds. “There has to be some balance, some middle ground we reach. We can’t just expect kids to want to be techs their whole lives.”

It’s also beneficial to donate advanced equipment and totaled cars equipped with new vehicle technology to technical schools.

Above All: Show That You Care

As Michalski closes out her speech at SEMA, you can sense the passion, yet also the seriousness in her voice. Collision repair isn’t just a fad for her (she recently secured an internship with Sun Chevrolet in McMurray, Pa.). When students and shop owners came into her high school classroom to promote trade positions, it wasn’t just the money or the technology that sold her—it was the opportunity for something better; the chance to succeed at a profession she had never once considered.

So that’s really what she wanted to drive home with the final words of her speech: Michalski’s dream of owning a shop herself someday started with one moment. So don’t just sell a job to these kids—sell collision repair as a chance to do something great.

“There are people who don’t feel I should be in this industry, because I’m a woman, or because I’m too young,” she said, just before the room burst into a rounding applause. “And it’s great to finally be recognized as: ‘Yes, you’re supposed to be here.’”

Read On

Here are some FenderBender stories and links that expand on topics discussed in the article:

[1] Donate Now Donations to the foundation can be made at

[2] Download CTHSS’s annual plans for recruiting more high school students into trade programs and improving technology at state high schools.

[3] Paving the Way, June 2016 How to host an effective career night

[4] Growing from Mistakes, August 2014 How Kevin Conner breathed life back into his shop

[5] Erasing the Technician Shortage, September 2015 Hiring Hispanic employees helped Lisa Siembab bridge the recruitment gap

[6] Your Guide to Motivating Millennials Develop a five-year pay structure (among other tips) for millennial employees

[7] Collision Shops that Give Back and Get Back, December 2014 Three unique stories about shops becoming community advocates

[8] Solving the Technician Shortage, CollisionCast Our podcast interview with Fayetteville Technical Community College on revolutionizing how we train today’s technicians

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