It was well past midnight when Louie Sharp stepped off the stairs and onto the tarmac at Naval Air Station Glenview. There was no one waiting. No banners. No signs. No parade. No welcoming committee—no hero’s welcome of any kind.
Sharp simply sped up his gait, pushing through the whipping wind of a January Illinois night toward his brother’s Dodge pickup idling a few hundred yards away. He threw his bag in the flatbed and sank into the passenger seat, feeling more estranged than at any point during his 14-month tour as a door gunner in Desert Storm.
“It’s sort of an empty feeling,” he says now, some 26 years later. “You’re over there and you do what you’re trained to do, and now all of a sudden, you’re back and you don’t know what to think. I just decided: I guess I’ll go to work tomorrow.” And he did, stepping back behind the front counter of Sharp Auto Body, the business he had spent nearly 10 years building, growing and nurturing; the business that, during his year-long absence, had been run into the ground.
Pairing Need with Opportunity
“I always had a passion to be around the auto industry,” he says. His grandfather was a bodyman. His father did hobby restoration. Marstall remembers being enthralled watching his dad work in the garage. “I dabbled on the mechanical side in high school but didn’t want to spend my career covered in oil all the time. Collision repair, and the apparent opportunity there, really drew me in.”
Opportunity is how Marstall, now a technician and estimator at Laird Noller Collision Center in Lawrence, Kansas, puts it. Most shop operators, though, would refer to it as a need, even a desperate one.
Despite an overall decrease in total shop count in recent years, the industry’s $33 billion market hasn’t shrunk; neither has the necessity for qualified technicians. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for auto body repair technicians is expected to grow by 9 percent between 2014 and 2024. For comparison, mechanical technician demand is only expected to grow at a 6 percent clip; all other occupations are expected to see a 7 percent boost.
But those aren’t the statistics with which Marstall has a problem being associated.
No, try these: At the end of 2015, roughly 5.8 percent of all “Gulf War II veterans” (the BLS’s term for those who, like Marstall, joined the armed forces post-2001) were unemployed. In all, there were roughly 495,000 unemployed veterans at the end of December—37 percent of which fit into Marstall’s 25–44 age category.
“That’s the biggest fear many people have coming out: What am I going to do now?” Marstall says.
Those unemployment numbers eat away at Clark Plucinski. Now the executive director of the Collision Repair Education Foundation, Plucinski was part of an anti-submarine warfare team during the Vietnam War. He went on to start his own body shop, growing it into a multi-shop operation, and eventually overseeing a 40-plus shop network before joining the foundation fulltime in 2012.
“Unfortunately, with the timing of when I left the service, I was exposed to all the horribleness associated with that time: people coming back with no jobs, no families in some cases; some lost their lives,” he says. “It was horrible, and the lack of dignity they were treated with … ”
Sharp sat in the barber’s chair—the same chair he’d frequented since he was 5 years old—and became uneasy at the first question.
“Really simple, he just asked how I was doing,” Sharp recalls.
A wave of thoughts rushed through his mind. He thought about the four comebacks waiting for him back at the shop—four paint jobs done so poorly that he’d wind up completely stripping them down and redoing them, all while eating the cost. He thought about the financial books strewn across his desk; ledgers inked and stained with the dismal performance his once-proud business had eked out day after day over the past several months. He thought about the overwhelmed manager he’d left in charge during his absence overseas, and the mistake-prone, focus-lacking way in which the shop had operated. He thought about the impending debt, the lack of jobs coming in, the bills that would need to be paid.
In his first weeks back in civilian life, the struggles of his shop were all he could think about.
So, how was he doing?
“I told him it was a struggle,” Sharp says. “I told him I didn’t know what to do. We were losing money, and now doing work for free. What were we going to do?”
To Sharp’s surprise, his barber had the solution.
It was a simple sign, the type that was very common in the late ’80s and early ’90s: a white, plastic backdrop affixed with clear, plastic slots that held black, plastic letters.
Sharp only had it in front of his shop for two months, he says, but it “turned everything around.”
BACK FROM DESERT STORM. NEED YOUR BUSINESS.
Finding a Solution
Everyone in the ballroom turned from their tables to look at the screen; on it, Jim West could see his son, smiling, sitting calmly on the other side of a Skype feed.
West was at a golf course near Cincinnati. His son was more than 6,400 miles away at a military base in Iraq. It was a little jarring for West, though he was the one who orchestrated the moment.
This was Aug. 31 of last year, the day of CARSTAR Collision Care Centers in Cincinnati’s annual golf outing. It’s an event that benefits the Fisher House Foundation, a “home away from home,” as the organization puts it, for families of patients receiving treatment at military and VA medical centers. And as CEO of the 10-shop Ohio group, West says it’s one of his favorite days of the year.
“It is absolutely amazing and humbling the sacrifices our servicemen and women make,” he says. “It never feels like there’s enough we can do. I’m in awe of them.” That includes his two sons and his daughter-in-law, all three of which serve in the armed forces. His eldest, on screen in front of more than a hundred people in that ballroom last year, seemed excited for the opportunity to address the group, West says, even though it was roughly 1 a.m. in the Middle East.
“He just comes on and thanks everyone for being there, for showing their support, for all they do,” West says proudly, and still a little taken aback by the moment. “The selflessness of these men and women is really remarkable.
“My sons and my daughter-in-law all understand the struggles many [veterans] go through. They know how hard it can be, and he just wanted to make sure people knew how much them helping was appreciated.”
The event has raised as much at $22,000 in the past, and West says he’s always looking for new ways to help veterans and their families—whether that’s through hiring opportunities in his company or supporting local groups and charities.
West's story isn't unique across the industry, though, as there are many trying to do their part. Service King's Mission 2 Hire program has a goal to hire at least 500 past and present military members and spouses within five years. The 3M Hire Our Heroes program has already issued more than $500,000 in tool grants and scholarships to veterans and their families.
Marstall was one of the beneficiaries of the 3M program. He used the G.I. Bill to pay for tuition at Washburn Institute of Technology in Topeka, and the 3M grant went toward the tools he needed to become a technician.
“It was a really simple process, and it made all the difference,” he says. “Without it, you’re looking at a big investment without something like this helping you. It can be a turnoff for people maybe looking at this industry—knowing that just to get a job, they’ll need to go into debt to pay for tools and things.”
Marstall is one of 158 so far who have been given the 3M grant since it started in 2012, says Dale Ross, U.S. marketing operations manager for 3M. The first three years, Ross says, 3M simply made the donations itself. Now, it’s added an element of industry involvement, offering armed forces–themed calendars to anyone who donates $200 or more. That initiative started in January. By the end of March, Ross says, the industry had donated more than $200,000.
“We should’ve started that sooner,” Ross says with a laugh. “It was incredible the amount of support that was out there, and we’ll continue to do whatever we can to help.”
“These are the types of people we want in our industry,” Ross adds. “Already-well-trained, intelligent, understand teamwork, discipline, process—we should be doing all we can to not only help them in their transition, but offer a career path.”
Education is where that transition needs to begin, Plucinski says. The industry, through its training arms and schools, needs to provide a platform and foundation that can serve as a launching pad for veteran careers. It’s something that’s been sorely lacking, Plucinski says; that is, until last year.
“What they’ve done at that school in Fayetteville (N.C.), that’s the benchmark for how we can change all of this,” he says.
What you give, you get back. That’s the philosophy that has guided Sharp Auto Body through 35 years of business. And Sharp leaned heavily on that when building his business for a second time.
It was then, with his business back on track, that Sharp could stop to catch his breath, only to realize how difficult that was to do.
“This is where it always gets tough for me,” he says. “What we went through [during deployment], it never affected me much while I was there. I had a [mentor] in the service who was shot down three times in Vietnam; he was a door gunner, too. He said of his time [in Vietnam]: ‘It’s done. It’s over. Once it’s over, you have to leave it in the past. Don’t drag it around with you.’
“That’s what I did, but coming home, being home, I think about all of it often.”
Sharp’s voice cracks.
“It’s not that I have difficulty with what happened. It’s being back, being home, being able to go on with my life. So many of us couldn’t. I’d say, nine months after I came back, it really hit me, the guilt. And it doesn’t really leave.”
Sharp wants others to know that it gets better, though; that being home, being safe, living a good life is not something to feel guilty about.
“If I had two things to say to fellow veterans,” Sharp says in a pleading voice, “the first is that advice my mentor gave me: Once it’s over, it’s over; you can’t carry around those events with you every day.
“The second is the bigger one: Your time in the service will not be the greatest thing you did with your life. It’s a starting point. You still have the rest of your life left. Never think that you can’t do more, that you don’t have a life to look forward to. Too many are traumatized by what happens, and too many never recover. Way too many. Just know that your life can be good. Know that there’s still plenty to look forward to. It might not seem like it now, but it’ll be OK.”
Building a Better Model
It took him nearly every one of his 26 years in the collision repair industry to realize it, but Paul Gage knows now that education is his calling.
And Fayetteville Technical Community College is where he found that.
Gage, a former technical training consultant at Nationwide, is the head of the school’s nearly two-year-old collision repair program. He helped design it. He helped launch it. And according to many others in the industry (Plucinski included), his vision helped create a bridge linking the industry’s need for qualified technicians and the opportunity that affords to military veterans.
Here’s the basic rundown: After its initial class of 15 students in August 2014, the program now has 140 enrolled full-time—62 percent of which served in the military. It operates as a cohort, with a new group of students (reserved to around 20 or so) entering the program every eight weeks, and staying together as a “unit” until they graduate.
“It plays into two things,” Gage explains. “The first is that this is similar to how you’d develop in a shop atmosphere—as part of a team, identifying roles, learning leadership skills, learning to rely on and help others. It’s an environment that offers more than just technical education. It’s also an environment that veterans are very familiar in and comfortable with. And that’s the second part: This plays to the strengths of those who served in a unit, as part of a team. It offers them that camaraderie and team atmosphere that many long for when they get out of the service.”
The uniqueness of the program goes beyond the setup, though, as the entire concept was forged due to location: The school is down the street from Fort Bragg, one of the largest U.S. military installations in the world with nearly 40,000 people living on-base.
“So, the thinking was, they have between 8,000 and 12,000 people leaving that base every year for civilian life,” Gage explains. “Where are they going to go? Why aren’t we offering them a clear transition and career path?”
Gage was contacted by a colleague who worked for Gerber, seeing if Gage would be interested in assisting the program in developing a more effective technical education concept. He leapt at the chance, especially after the president of the school all but offered a blank check as his sign of support.
They worked to design what would become a $7 million, state-of-the-art complex, and a curriculum setup that played into the needs of students and veterans. The eight-week incremental starting points, for example, were decided on to allow quick entry into the program for service members who are discharged at different points in the year.
Apprenticeships and career fairs also play large rolls. The latter has helped to demonstrate the program’s effectiveness. The first one, held last winter, had 27 soon-to-graduate students demonstrating their skills for more than 40 body shop representatives over the course of a day. Gage compares it to the NFL’s draft combine, and says that the students, working together in their unit, were very impressive.
“Each of them ended the day with at least four job offers,” he says. “All of them have jobs lined up when they graduate. This is our first class, and we will have a 100 percent placement rate from them. It’s incredible.”
Gage became so engrossed in the original process of helping the school get off the ground, that when asked to run the program full time, he didn’t hesitate.
“I was still with Nationwide through all of this, and I hadn’t intended on taking on this role,” he says. “I love it, though. I feel like this is what I’m supposed to be doing.
“I never served in the military, but I feel like this is my way that I can do my part to offer service right back.”
The woman was roughly the same age as Sharp. He didn’t know her; had never met her before. She was a first-time customer, and Sharp wasn’t quite sure where the conversation was going.
“This was just last year, and she starts out saying, ‘I know a bit about you and I’m not sure if anyone has ever told you this before … ” Sharp says.
The next words were in fact ones he hadn’t heard—not once in the last 25 years.
And suddenly, Sharp says, everything felt like it came full circle.
He thought of that first night back, walking across the tarmac; that feeling of loneliness. He thought of everyone left behind, who didn’t get to come home to make that walk. He thought of the internal turmoil in the years following, the joy he eventually found back in civilian life. He thought about everything. It all hit him at once, and he broke down.
“All she said was, ‘Welcome Home.’”
How You Can Get Involved
• Army Career and Alumni Program. The Army’s official transition assistance program.
• Transition GPS. The official transition assistance program for the Navy.
• Marine Corp’s Transition Assistance Management Program. The official transition assistance program for the Marine Corps.
• The Airforce Personnel Center. The official transition assistance program for the Air Force.
• Coast Guard’s Transition Assistance Program. The official transition assistance program for the Coast Guard.
• Veterans Employment and Training Services (VETS). A program from the U.S. Department of Labor aimed at matching employers with military veterans.
• Military.com’s Veteran Employment Center. Job-posting and -finding forum powered by Monster and available through Military.com.
• 5 Star Worldwide. Hiring and recruiting company with two specific initiatives (Veterans Joblink and 5 Star Recruitment) for military veterans.
• Hire Veterans. A national 501(c)(3) nonprofit aimed at helping veterans find employment. • Hire Heroes USA. A job search site for military veterans. • 3M Hire Our Heroes. A tool grant and scholarship program for veterans.
The Veteran Advantage
Four industry professionals share their reasons why veterans make great hires
“Military veterans are the employees you’re looking for: Dedicated, disciplined, hard-working. These are people with developed skills, more mature than many their age, and with a greater understanding of what it takes to be successful working as a team.” — Clark Plucinski, executive director, Collision Repair Education Foundation
“The training—we all know the training they get is second to none, and there are a lot of opportunities where they will make great employees. It can be a tough to transition, but having strong communication to what they did in the military and how that would relate to regular work force will help that along. These are people with highly technical skills that aren’t unlike what they’d need to learn in [the collision repair] industry.” — Dale Ross, U.S. marketing operations manager, 3M
“It’s very difficult to train discipline and respect in a civilian business anymore, and these are traits they come in with that can’t be taken away. They’re mature, processed-focused people. SOPs are huge to them. If you’re a process-driven [operator], these are your ideal employees; these are people that have lived by the book for all their years of service.” — Louie Sharp, owner, Sharp Auto Body (Ill.)
“These are dedicated people. And, more than anything, they are excited about the opportunity and will leap at it. They understand a team atmosphere, how to work together for a larger cause. The moment they join the military, they’re not an individual anymore; they’re part of a team. They enjoy that concept.” — Paul Gage, director of transportation services technologies, Fayetteville Technical Community College
What the Military Did for Me
Three personal success stories
“You don’t do much in this world without supporting effort and help from others—that’s something muy service time taught me. Team work is incredibly important. Another thing it taught me was perseverance and dedication. You’re asked to do a lot of difficult things [in the military], and it’s impossible to do that without realizing how important it is not to give up. You have to be dedicated to doing the right thing, all the time.” — Louie Sharp, owner, Sharp Auto Body (Ill.)
“The two biggest things: Discipline and confidence. Discipline is pretty easy to see, as that’s part of the daily life. But confidence is something that is often overlooked with military service. You learn quickly to adapt and deal with very difficult situations. The skills I learned, whether technical or with leadership and management, have carried over to today, and give me confidence for whatever I face.” — Clark Plucinski, executive director, Collision Repair Education Foundation
“More than anything, [my service time] really taught me about discipline. You have to be on time, you have to work hard, you have to be very punctual and very focused. It’s just a mindset that you learn that stays with you and can [benefit] you a lot in other jobs.” — David Marstall, estimator, Laird Noller Collision Center (Kansas)