Tips for Recruiting Young Professionals

Jan. 1, 2016
Three shop operators offer their strategies for recruiting collision repair students into the industry

Margaret Keith asked a simple question to a room full of high school students, “How many of you like cars?” Every single hand shot up.

But then came the next question, “How many of you have actually worked on a car?” Most of the hands went down. Even fewer hands remained in the air when she asked, “How many of you have your own tools?”

These students are part of Avenue Scholars Foundation—a program that identifies and mentors students unlikely to graduate high school. The foundation partners with several Nebraska businesses, including CARSTAR Northwest in Omaha, Neb., one of the four shops for which Keith serves as marketing manager.

This story is nothing new to many shop owners. An I-CAR report showed 48 percent of technicians are between the ages of 36 and 55—that’s 83,136 technicians, a portion of which will be out of the industry within 10 years. There may be a shortage soon, and it’s getting harder to recruit young people into trades.

But instead of conceding to the shortage, some people are enacting change on a smaller level. FenderBender spoke with three different shop operators, who shared their strategies for recruiting adolescents within their communities.

Apprenticeship Programs

The average age of a D&S Automotive (in Mentor, Ohio) technician is 54, which worries vice president CJ Paterniti. However, by working with the Auburn Career Center, he’s hoping to set his shop up for the future.

For the past three years, Paterniti has implemented an apprenticeship program that encourages high school students studying collision repair at the career center to apply for part-time positions at his shop. Each year, D&S hosts one student, who works 20 hours per week in various roles during his or her senior year. The students are paid $10 an hour, and the shop has hired five technicians through the program so far.The schedule includes:

• Four weeks in disassembly

• Four weeks in light body repairs

• Two weeks in heavy body repairs

• Six weeks in refinishing

• Two weeks in mechanical

• Two weeks in sanding and buffing

• Four weeks in reassembly

Paterniti says it’s much easier to grow technicians within the shop than to hire professionals with more experience.

“The young professionals want a job and have something to prove to us. They’re fresh out of high school and don’t have any debt to worry about,” he says. “I don’t want to hire a guy who’s been bouncing from shop to shop for 20 years. He’s not invested in us. That’s a waste of time.”

It’s also advantageous to shop culture, says daily operations manager David Callister. Since the shop switched from traditional flat-rate pay to a team-based structure three years ago, seasoned D&S technicians are motivated to guide students through the program.

“It gives incentives for 50-year-old technician to teach the apprentice how to do it. So when the D-level tech moves up to the B-level, he can make more money,” he says.

Callister says there’s a huge advantage in providing real-world training for high school students. While teenagers can learn the nuts and bolts of collision repair in class, the organization and planning it takes to administer $9,000 in repairs on one vehicle is something that must be experienced.

“The reason they can put a quarter panel in in an afternoon isn’t just because they’re smart—it’s because they figured out what they’re doing,” he says.

The Takeaway: Paterniti suggests reaching out to local high schools and vocational schools. The Auburn Career Center works with D&S to handpick potential candidates for the program (they must have good grades and attendance records). Paterniti also gives presentations to classes about collision repair and attends career fairs to speak with parents about students’ potential futures in the industry, all in an attempt to recruit ambitious students to the apprenticeship program.

Create a Local Team

With ambitions of taking over his father’s collision repair shop, Frank Todaro signed up for body repair classes at his high school’s vocational center. He remembers the enthusiasm among the students in the classroom as they trained for their future careers.

Nineteen years later, the owner of Schmidt’s Collision & Glass in Buffalo, N.Y., sees a different trend.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed I’m not getting [walk-in job applicants] anymore—people that can actually work on cars,” Todaro says. “More and more, the younger generation is about sitting at a desk, working at a computer.”

After reconnecting with his former auto body refinishing instructor, Todaro realized the problem: High schools aren’t pushing education through their vocational units. In President Barack Obama’s budget for 2012, funding for career and technical education (CTE) programs dropped from $1.271 billion to $1.007 billion.

“The schools are actually losing state funding when the kids are leaving the high school to go to a vocational school,” he says. “I saw it right away: It’s a set-up for failure.”

Todaro made two key connections in an attempt to reverse this problem: high school guidance counselors and local legislatures.

First, Todaro met with various area guidance counselors and discussed the advantages of blue collar careers for certain students. Then, he and several members of I-CAR Northeast hosted the counselors at various vocational schools to witness the rundown, underfunded classroom equipment firsthand.

“A lot of them were in shock and awe: ’Wow, look at this equipment in here and look at the school,’” he says. “They didn’t even know what was going on.”

Now that he has the counselors on board, he’s enlisting them in pressuring local legislatures to push a bill that would increase CTE funding. As a member of the Good Government Club of Western New York, Todaro networks with various elected officials, including New York Sen. Tim Kennedy, about increasing funding.

The Takeaway: While Todaro hasn’t caused any bills to be passed yet, he says prominent business leaders in the community can easily enlist the help of public officials. Connect with political organizations and partner with local schools in calling area officials who can create change on a larger scale.

“The power of a local legislator is huge. Bring the issue to their attention,” he says. “Once I got the ball rolling, I perked their attention immediately and they saw all these problems they had no idea about.”

Shop Tours

As part of the Avenue Scholars program, Keith hosts students twice a year at the CARSTAR location in Omaha. She gives a PowerPoint presentation on why they should consider a career in collision repair, and then takes the students on a shop tour, where they receive hands-on experience with vehicles.

Keith has adjusted her presentation over time to cover what students have shown the most interest in:

• Crucial roles in the industry: Technicians, estimators, painters, parts managers and insurance representatives.

• Average salaries: “A lead technician can make up to $60,000 per year,” Keith tells the students.

• Educational and training opportunities: Technical colleges, scholarships, I-CAR training and ASE certifications.

• Motivational statistics: “Two-thirds of body shops have hired from a collision repair program in their area and almost all would hire again,” Keith says.

Setting expectations is key. Many students admire industry celebrities, like Chip Foose and Charley Hutton, and Keith notes how many of them started in auto body shops.

That’s why a shop tour is crucial: Students not only experience the various positions, but also receive hands-on experience with the professionals.

The tour consists of four stops: estimating, structural, body and painting. At each stop, a CARSTAR employee discusses his or her role and answers questions for 30 minutes. Keith even brings in Kelli Wenzl of Farmers Insurance Group to educate students on the insurance side of the industry.

“By talking to these guys, they’ll realize that one of their first jobs at a body shop is probably going to be washing cars and sweeping floors,” Keith says. “But if you show an interest and aptitude, the shop will help you grow into a better position.”

Pete Alexander, estimator for CARSTAR Northwest, says students rarely realize the importance of customer service in collision repair.

“They don’t know anything about insurance companies when they come in,” he says. “And you could tell they were genuinely interested with all the questions they were asking.”

The students receive some training in the body, structural and paint stations, hammering out dents and mixing paint. Jason Jensen, painter for the Northwest location, says live demonstrations go a long way in motivating students.

“They were all loving it, grinning from ear to ear. It was a lot of fun,” he says. “I could see a lot of them coming around our way in the future.”

The Takeaway: Keith suggests setting up partnerships with organizations that mentor high school students in your area—if the teenagers are interested in a career in body repair after the tour, Avenue Scholars refers the best students to CARSTAR for interviews.

Arrange a shop tour of your facility, and be sure to promote job availability and salary ranges. For CARSTAR, it’s working—two detailers were hired this past summer from Avenue Scholars.

“These kids, they’re looking at fields where they can get the necessary skills in two years,” she says. “They’re not picking kids that want to be video game designers—they’re kids that want to go into a blue collar trade and be making a living in two years.”

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