Widening the Circle

May 4, 2023
How to identify the best employees and make sure they’re the right fit for the shop.

The Backstory 

CJ Paterniti, owner of D&S Automotive in Chardon, Ohio, knows a thing or two about expanding his employee circle. 

When his father first started D&S in 1977, it was a single shop specializing in the conversion of “hippie” vans. Today, they’re in their 45th year of business with over 90 employees between several shops and business units. Paterniti has learned a thing or two about how to bring new employees into the business and make sure they’re a good fit. 

His best piece of advice for growing your team? 

“Hire based on attitude, interest, and how well the person will mesh with your company culture,” he says. “And trust your gut. Skills an be taught.” 

The Problem 

The first hurdle—and nowadays the biggest—is finding a qualified employee to onboard in the first place, says Paterniti. 

Since the founding of D&S, Paterniti can’t remember another time in the shop’s history when this has been such a challenge. 

“The day has finally come that I'm competing against places like Walmart, McDonald's, and Burger King for employees, because people are trying to get a job for a certain wage. It's hindering my ability to compensate the seasoned technicians or the experienced people.” 

Adding to the challenge, he says, is finding people with a true desire and passion for the industry…a good “fit,” if you will. 

“There’s a shortage across the industry, nationally. We’re all running up against the same problem.” 

Thankfully for Paterniti, his shop has a long-standing reputation on the east side of Cleveland, and the majority of new, entry-level employees are drawn to that. 

“This is our 45th year, so we have a following. But it's never been this hard to find help ever, really. And you're competing with everybody. That’s ultimately what it comes down to. It's not just my own industry. I'm competing with other industries, too.”  

The Solution 

Finding the right person is hard, but certainly not impossible—Paterniti’s thriving businesses are a testament to that. One avenue that’s been particularly successful for him is hiring apprentices from a local tech school. 

“I partner with the local tech school to pull from their senior class and offer internships. So, they'll actually do on-the-job work-study here. They go to school for a couple of hours, do their math or government or English, and then instead of going to the tech school, they'll come here and do an on-the-job apprenticeship program, paid.”  

These apprentices often end up working for Paterniti full-time after they graduate. 

But regardless of whether you’re pulling from a tech school, a job fair, or an employment listing, Paterniti has the same advice—hire for attitude, not skill level. 

“It's always easier to get that [employee] that's fully trained or fully experienced,” he says. “But then sometimes you're teaching an old dog new tricks when it comes to how you want things done … which isn't always easy. So, if you get somebody with a good attitude and a good perspective on things who is eager to learn, you're light years ahead.” 

It’s also equally important to find new employees who you know from the get-go will mesh with your company culture. For Paterniti, that means finding people who work hard, have a desire to give back to the community and want to become a member of the D&S family. 

“When you’re honest and upfront about your culture and the type of employee you’re looking for, it goes a long way toward ensuring you hire the right person,” he says. “I run my business for the corporate aspect, but we're still a family. We have potlucks, bowling outings, lots of fun gatherings outside of work. It makes for a stronger team. 

“I can’t tell you how many of my employees hang out with each other outside of the shop. They’ve all become friends.” 

Paterniti also hosts a Christmas party every year and cookouts during the summer months. And he encourages his employees to volunteer at the annual drive-in fundraiser, where he raises money for the local children’s hospital. 

“We take community service very seriously,” he says, “and we want to hire people who feel the same.” 

For the right employee, Paterniti is willing to negotiate terms. He keeps an open mind based on what’s most important to a new hire. 

“I’ve increased the sign-on bonus. I've made concessions on PTO allowances. I've gone as far as giving PTO upfront, a change that’s reflected in our handbook for 2023,” he says.  

The Aftermath 

Once you’ve found and hired the right employee, it’s time to integrate them into the shop and build a long-term relationship. High employee turnover doesn’t benefit anyone, so it’s important to get it right, straight out of the gate. 

“We’re constantly improving our processes and efficiency in onboarding and training new employees,” says Paterniti. “I’m about 90% done creating new training manuals for every position in the shop right now, and we’re working with our payroll company to digitize our hiring and benefit documents to minimize the potential for errors.” 

New employees hit the ground running from Day 1, when they complete a thorough initiation with the HR manager. The day begins with an overview of the history of the company, policies and expectations. Setting expectations and giving people the information they need to do their jobs effectively is paramount to success, says Paterniti. Every new employee then undergoes safety training and reviews training manuals specific to their job before meeting the rest of the team. Senior team members are encouraged to take new hires “under their wing” and train them on the job. 

“Everybody understands what my expectation is on what we need to do to be able to have continuity and consistency, because someday when that senior tech does retire, he needs to have a replacement. Somebody helped him when he got in this business, and I ask my older employees to pay it forward in that respect.”  

Check-ins are conducted every two to three weeks as the new hire settles into their position, and again at the 80-day mark, when Paterniti and his team determine whether they’ll be made permanent ahead of the 90-day probationary period. 

“Today’s generation of employees is extremely different from those of the past,” he adds. “These young people want an employer that not only pays them well, but takes their quality of life into account, too. They care as much about having a generous amount of PTO as they do good pay.” 

The importance of showing appreciation can’t be overstated, either, says Paterniti. You have to show your employees that you care about them on both a personal and professional level, and provide them with opportunities for growth and development. Incentivizing for performance goes a long way as well. 

“We celebrate milestone anniversaries and gift our employees for their service,” says Paterniti. “For example, at ten years of service you get a $250 gift, and it's not just one gift, it's a credit/reward system. They might select a battery drill, watch, new pair of sunglasses …whatever they want! It’s a small token of our appreciation for their dedication and loyalty, but it goes a long way.” 

The Takeaway 

“My father told me at a very young age, ‘Always trust your gut.’ And there's been a handful of times when I didn't, and in the end, I end up regretting it,” Paterniti says. “Trust yourself and trust your judgment. That will lead you to the right employees for your shop.”