Fighting staffing struggles

July 8, 2015
MSOs, both individually and jointly, are finding ways to get the talent the industry needs.

Erick Bickett says that for MSOs in particular, the time has come tackle the serious challenge of the shortage of qualified technicians and employees.

“Over the years I’ve seen a lot of false starts, many attempts to solve the problem, Bickett, the CEO of Fix Auto USA, said during a recent Collision Repair Executive Webcast. “There’s been lots of great intention, lots of capital being raised to back efforts to solve the problem. But we are at crisis levels now. It’s actually restricting our opportunity to grow.”

Here’s what Bickett and other MSOs say they are doing both to find talent for their own shops but also to work together as an industry to solve the “human resources crisis.”

Look outside the industry
Many of the shop owners participating in a recent Collision Industry Conference panel discussion about entry-level technicians suggested that shops need to start looking for the employees they need outside the collision repair industry.

“The last person that we hired is a young man who came to our door at a time when we needed a tech,” Jeanne Silver, owner of Butterfield Bodyworks CARSTAR in Mundelein, Ill., said. “He’d had no classes. He knows about cars somewhat, mechanically. But the thing that impressed me was his work ethic. He’s 24 years old and said he needed to take care of his family: his mother and his younger brother who he wants to keep off the streets. The other thing that impressed me was he said he still wants to have an opportunity to go to school. At which point I said, ‘Hallelujah. Somebody telling me they

Silver said she’s matched her new hire up with a metal technician, but he’s also spent some time learning in the paint shop as well.

“He’s spectacular,” she said.

Looking outside the industry for new hires doesn’t stop with technicians, Silver said. The last time her shop needed an estimator, she ended up hiring someone who had worked at Best Buy, who knew a little bit about cars but a lot about people management.

“He’s an absolutely fabulous employee,” Silver said. “He’s had to learn estimating from the beginning. But he has unbelievable management and people skills. It has been a wonderful experience for us to take two people who didn’t have any training but who were open to learning and put them in those positions.”

Bob Keith, co-owner of four CARSTAR franchises in Nebraska, said looking outside the industry for help works well, but it requires some homework.

“First, look carefully at the roles you need to fill at your shop,” Keith recommended. “Define them. Have a good job description. What are the key skills that you need for that role? Then look for those outside the industry who have that skillset.”

Industry trainer Toby Chess said he too sees shops “looking outside the box” for new employees. He said one California MSO that he works with is experimenting with hiring two entry-level employees, with no collisions repair training or experience, at the same time. One is considered an “at-risk youth” and the other is military veteran now out of the service. Chess said he thinks the leadership and discipline exemplified by the veteran will help shape the training of the “at-risk” youth as the two learn and work together.

Industry effort needed
Bickett, who owns nine Fix Auto shops of his own, has a similar success story, having last year hired an employee who had been working as the manager of a retail pet store. Bickett said he put the new hire on a two-year training program within one of his shops to become a repair planner.

Retain employees by offering more perks

Some of the staffing struggles MSOs face can be mitigated through better retention of current employees. A company called AnyPerk says it is helping businesses offer more of the type of benefits often thought reserved for Silicon Valley high-tech companies.

AnyPerk ( essentially allows you to offer employees hundreds of special deals and discounts on movie passes, sporting events, restaurants, gym membership, theme parks, home services, travel and more – all for $10 per employee per month. You can add your own pre-negotiated perks to the system or delete those that aren’t of interest to your employees, and get reports on what deals your employees are using. You can even use the system to reward employee achievements or milestones with credits they can use toward the gift of their choice through the system.

“He’s already way ahead of where we thought he’d be,” Bickett said.

But while Bickett agrees that finding unique ways to attract talent will be a competitive advantage for his company or any MSO, he also sees a need for MSOs and others in the industry to work together on the issue.

“Otherwise, quite frankly, any one collision repair operator who is good at growing people will end up being cannibalized by the rest who aren’t good at it,” Bickett said.

Bickett believes that while recruiting outside the industry can help, collision repair training programs at schools will still be the key to producing the number of new entrants into the industry that shops will need. That number is not insignificant. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that the total number of “automotive body and related repairers” employed in the U.S. will grow 20 percent from 2012 levels to more than 174,000 technicians by 2022. That would mean 20,400 more technicians working than are currently in the trade.

Jeff Peevy, president of the Automotive Management Institute, agrees that MSOs shouldn’t ignore collision repair training programs as sources for entry-level technicians. He said I-CAR has reshaped the curriculum it offers these schools based on the industry’s feedback. Too often in the past, he said, these schools were trying to introduce students to too much, resulting in training that was “ a mile wide but only an inch deep.”

“The student is exposed to a lot of stuff, but doesn’t have a level of confidence to go out and do any particular task without a lot of supervision,” Peevy said. “So the education edition (of our training) addresses that, narrowing the focus to non-structural repair and refinish, and at some point the student chooses which of those roles they will specialize in.”

Peevy said the curriculum is in use in about 320 of the country’s 1,100 collision repair school programs.

Finding a new approach at the schools
One of those schools is a newly-opened program in North Carolina that Clark Plucinski believes will become a model for how MSOs and other public and private organizations can work together to produce hundreds of shop-ready employees every year.

Plucinski, a former MSO owner and the executive director of the Collision Repair Education Foundation, said the new 2-year program at Fayetteville Technical Community College in Fayetteville, N.C., is largely focused on offering job training to personnel leaving the military. There are a number of military bases in the area, and the benefits they receive can cover not only the $5,000 cost for the two-year program, but also housing during that time, and post-graduation relocation to jobs in other areas.

Shops and suppliers have played a key role in getting the new facility equipped and in designing a program that will produce the type of entry-level workers that shops need. MSOs are among those working with one another on the project, Plucinski said, because they know no one company alone will be able to hire the dozens of entry-level workers the school hopes to graduate every year, starting next year. Graduates come out with I-CAR welding and other certifications.

“It’s our first stab at a model that we believe will be the bellweather for the rest of the industry,” Plucinski said.

Fixing the structure of the shops
Fix Auto’s Bickett said he believes other schools will step up like Fayetteville to produce the entry-level employees the industry needs, but said it is up to MSOs and other shops to restructure their businesses to have a place for those graduates to begin their careers.

“To me, the problem isn’t the schools, it’s the shops,” Bickett said. “If there’s a demand there, the schools will respond.”

Bickett said throughout his career he has been involved in a variety of ways supporting collision repair training programs in schools. But he said he has more recently realized that, like a lot of other collision repair organizations, the way his shops’ production was structured prevented him from having a place for more than a few of the entry-level workers those school were producing.

Too often in shops today, Bickett said for example, technicians paid on commission don’t want to take the time to teach. Technicians are generally expected to handle all aspects of a repair, leaving little opportunity for those with only entry-level skills. Entry-level workers aren’t given a defined career path and aren’t being “sold” on the opportunities the industry offers. And shops that do grow their own employees often find themselves in an expensive bidding war when those people are later being lured away by other shops desperate for talent.

That’s why he’s now working to help Fix Auto shops – and the industry as a whole –develop and implement production models to change that in order to be able to bring in more “rookie talent.”

“Our focus is on restructuring the collision shop so shops have a place where they can bring the apprentice in, and where that apprentice can be adding some value almost immediately, and that the apprentice has the opportunity to grow within the organization,” Bickett said.

That could mean developing a “light-duty lane” within the shop, Bickett said, focusing on the 75 percent of jobs under $1,500 in which much of the work can be done not by journeymen technicians but by the B-level or even C-level techs just starting their career.

Bickett said he sees this new model as the key to the industry as a whole solving the technician shortage.

“If you look across the country, you’ll find people who have very successfully approached this problem and have some very cool things going on in terms of growing qualified employees,” he said. “But they’re an island here and an island there. It needs to become more widespread throughout the industry. This is a such a big problem, but we all want to be on the same page, because together we can have an impact.”  

Using industry events as training and motivation tool
Have an employee you’re looking to inspire and motivate? Consider taking them or sending them to one of the industry’s conferences or events.

Speaking at the Collision Industry Conference (CIC) earlier this year, Aaron Schulenburg said he was an estimator at a shop when his boss said he should attend a CIC meeting.

“It was things like that that helped me as young employee in a shop realize this is a potential career versus just a job,” said Schulenburg, now the executive director of the Society of Collision Repair Specialists. “Getting outside of the four walls of the shop is a great way to develop that desire for learning because they see the potential that they have and feel they are part of something bigger than just a job.”

CIC Chairman and California MSO owner Randy Stabler agreed, based on his experience sending one of his company’s customer service representatives to the Women’s Industry Network conference.

“I wasn't sure about the value of it, but because she went to that event, she became so motivated,” Stabler said. “She’s now a store manager for us. I don’t think that that ever would have occurred if not for the WIN conference. It made her think of herself as able to accomplish more with her life. She was so inspired by the women who were there and the success stories and camaraderie. I can tell you that today she is the most successful store manager in our network. She outperforms everybody. I’m not sure I even would have seen that spark in her unless she went to the WIN conference