Sure, you’ve probably heard about the Collision Repair Education Foundation (CREF) giving away scholarships to collision repair technicians and students, or the March Taylor Memorial Fund, which honors an auto body shop owner who had a passion for giving back.
At the 2019 SEMA Show alone, the educational foundation gave away over $250,000 in collision repair school grants.
The March Taylor Memorial Fund gives away scholarships in the form of I-CAR coupons, partial or full payment for industry classes or awards to attend industry training events.
In a similar spirit, John Gustafson, president of Gustafson Brothers Inc., has worked hard to incorporate lessons learned from the shop’s business coaching. For instance, Gustafson and Cynthia Varnell, administrator, marketing director and human resources manager for the body shop, decided to start a camp for auto technicians to learn more about the trade.
“We founded the Gustafson Brothers Education Foundation out of a need to find technicians, estimators, mechanics and service advisors,” Gustafson says. “The pool of candidates is empty, so we work really hard to try to help the industry, as a whole, with recruiting.”
Gustafson Brothers Inc., opened its mechanical division in Huntington Beach, Calif., in 1971 and added its collision repair division in 1982.
From the get-go, the family-owned business was committed to constantly growing and learning. After 1981, the shop facilities grew to about 25,000 square feet spread throughout multiple buildings. A family member often visited the body shop to offer advice on the financials by analyzing the books.
But, as the shop grew, its operators learned they needed to hire a couple new technicians each year to keep up with the business’ growth. Today, the collision repair shop produces $6 million in annual revenue.
As a result, Gustafson and Varnell wanted to give back to the community in some fashion. While the California shop didn’t have the funds to create its own scholarship program, the staff realized it had the space and time to educate the industry. When Gustafson and Varnell founded the education foundation, it was out of necessity, because not a lot of people were made aware of what the automotive industry could offer.
So, four years ago, the duo formed a summer camp called Intro to Auto. The program was a paid summer camp, which helped provide instructors and materials for the classes, Gustafson says.
The sessions take place at the shop and the program runs two weeks during the summer. Students between the ages of 13 and 19 can join the camp for $200.
As Gustafson drove to work one day, he noticed advertisements for everything from football camp to chess camp. Most camps he noticed, were based on sports and academics.
“As a young man, I was interested in neither, working with my hands was my hobby,” he says. “That got me thinking, why don’t we offer a camp where youth can learn with their hands all while learning about growing a S.T.E.M. career?
The only remaining concern was how to get the camp legitimately off and running.
The summer camp program was a nice start for the body shop. But, Gustafson says, he wanted to take the idea even further. Right now, the summer camp is sponsored by some of his vendors in the area, and Gustafson and his body shop manager teach the courses.
Gustafson, though, wanted to expand upon the camp’s goals.
“Because we’re involved,” Gustafson says, “we never know exactly what’s working [regarding the camp]. We try to advertise for the camp as much as we can on our social media pages like Facebook and Instagram, and in our monthly newsletter.”
In order to gain sponsors for the camp, Gustafson first had to make phone calls. He called vendors and inquired whether they would be willing to pay for a student’s camp experience if he or she was unable to afford the costs.
“Sponsorship is really easy to come by in the automotive industry,” he says. “There are so many dedicated vendors who want to better our industry by engaging youth.”
Then, Gustafson had to narrow down the camp’s target audience. He decided to open the camp sessions to teenage students. He wanted to open the program to younger students so that they can learn about all their career options from an early age.
Gustafson doesn’t provide students toolboxes to take home after the camp because of the variety in ages. But, as a celebration for finishing the camp, he hosts a graduation ceremony with pizza and cupcakes.
Initially the body shop staff needed to determine the most convenient schedule and topics for the camp sessions. Since the students go to school full-time, Gustafson offers the camp in between school sessions during winter and summer breaks.
The camp courses are half-day sessions from 8 a.m. to noon and run in two-week increments. The course is split with 80 percent hands-on and discussion learning and 20 percent focused on book studies.
Gustafson covers topics ranging from what type of repair facilities are available and career opportunities in the automotive industry to how to how to detail a car.
To further promote the camp, the shop staff will reach out to local high schools via guidance counselors, and run paid advertisements on Instagram and Facebook two months before the camp session starts. And, they’ve listed the camps in the city’s local recreational guides.
After witnessing the reach of his camp, Gustafson decided to expand upon the idea and create a website that collects and shares the innovative or successful techniques other collision repairers are conducting within the industry.
He opened his website, autotalentco-op.org in 2017, with the goal to give back to the collision repair industry by educating current and future repairers.
The aim is to have a group of about 25 industry volunteers to coordinate the website’s content and meet virtually every week to discuss the success they’ve witnessed.
Gustafson says he’s witnessed many people in the industry waiting to take action to help others.
“Conversely, there are a lot of great things being done by many to fix the problem, but they’re working in their own silo like I am to fix the problem,” he says.
By providing options for students to learn more about the industry and promote success stories, Gustafson feels he’s helping solve the technician shortage.
At the end of the process, Gustafson said he can make a big difference by simply connecting people and facilitating the transfer of information.