Four steps can make apprenticeships work at your shop

Jan. 1, 2020
Shops are increasingly turning to mentorship of apprentices as a way to develop the new technicians they need. Here are four key steps to making the process work for your business.

The right people, plan and pay scale are keys to successful program

Can't find the experienced employees you need? Try creating them yourself. Shops are increasingly turning to mentorship of apprentices as a way to develop the new technicians they need. Here are four key steps to making the process work for your business.

Step 1: Choose the right mentor and apprentice. While an interest in cars and some basic mechanical aptitude can help, shop owners said their most successful apprentices are not necessarily those who come in with a lot of knowledge or experience. Instead, they said, take that young person who is washing cars or serving as a lot attendant at your shop — even if they may not know the first thing about fixing cars — but who shows up on time every day and is interested in learning more. Dependability and drive will make up for an initial lack of skills, they said.

And what kind of technician makes the best mentor? Obviously, skill and experience are important. But when Mike Quinn and Pat O'Neill, owners of 911 Collision Centers in Tucson, Ariz., nominated technician Doug Kollasch for a "Mentor of the Year" award last year, they cited other traits that training experts said make an ideal mentor.

Kollasch is hard working, dedicated and fair, Quinn and O'Neill said. He has patience to teach apprentices in a calm manner while showing appreciation and encouragement for their improvements. He's able to provide constructive criticism without discouraging their performance, they said. He leads by example and helps keep his apprentices on task. And his focus is always on teaching the proper techniques and processes.

Step 2: Create the right plan and program. Successful mentorship requires more than just pairing up an apprentice with an experienced tech. Both mentor and apprentice will need some tools and guidance to make it work.

"You can build a better team by creating your own quality talent in-house," says Mark Claypool, founder of Mentors@Work, a Web-based mentorship training and tracking program. "Unfortunately, too much in-house training is done 'by the seat of the pants.' There is no structure, no mentor training, no accountability and no recognition of advancement."

If you're bringing in apprentices from the local community college or trade school collision repair training program, the school may offer some assistance with your mentorship program.

Steve White, a collision repair instructor at Portland Community College in Oregon, said his program requires students to spend at least one term working in a shop. During that term, instructors visit the shop to talk with the owner, the student and any technicians serving as the student's mentor. They discuss the type of work the student should be doing, what his or her strengths are and what skills the student most needs to improve upon.

Generally all four parties involved — student, instructor, mentor and shop owner or manager — have an opportunity to evaluate the student's progress and how well the mentorship program is working for each of them.

Similarly, Mentors@Work (www.mentorsatwork.com) offers a training and testing program to ensure the mentor can be an effective trainer. It also supplies an online task list, sort of a "road map" the mentor can use to train the apprentice and track his progress.

Step 3: Create a compensation plan. In addition to helping generate the future technicians your business needs, a good mentoring program also can help you pare your labor costs, improve your cycle time — and help aging techs extend their career and earning potential.

It does so by having entry-level (and increasingly more challenging) work done by a lower-paid apprentice. This frees up your highest paid techs to do the most challenging repair work and still have time to help the apprentice learn without taking a cut in pay. Here's an example: Under a traditional flat rate pay system a technician earning $11 per labor hour and completing 100 flat rate hours in a pay period would earn $1,100.

In a two-person team system, the mentor technician ("Tech A") would be teamed with an apprentice ("Tech B"). Tech A would actually be paid more — say $13 — per flat rate hour the team completes. Tech B would be paid less — say, $8 per labor hour. Divide the total per-hour wages — $21 — by the two employees to get an effective team rate of $10.50 per flagged hour, a savings to the shop of 50 cents per labor hour compared to the $11 per hour paid under the traditional system.

If the two-person team then completes 180 labor hours in a pay period, Tech A and B are each paid for 90 labor hours. Tech A ends up earning $1,170 — $70 more than what he would have earned in the traditional pay plan.

A three-person team might combine a lead tech mentor with an entry-level and a mid-level tech — or even just two entry-level apprentices. Again, because he's helping train, Tech A gets more per labor hour, say $14.50. The helpers might earn $8 and $9 per hour, for a total effective team rate of $10.50 per hour ($31.50 divided by three employees).

If that team turns 246 hours in a pay period, each employee gets paid for 82 hours; Tech A earns $1,189, $89 more than he would under a traditional flat rate system. The shop turns 146 more hours in a pay period from the same number of stalls; is working to turn entry-level apprentices into techs it will need in the future; and has $123 less in direct labor costs for the pay period.

The team structure system at 911 Collision Centers pairs two experienced mentor technicians (paid on salary) with three apprentices (paid hourly), Quinn said. The whole team benefits from helping the apprentices learn and improve because if the team hits its goal for the month, there's a pot of bonus money that gets bigger based on the team's productivity. Quinn said it's an effective way to train the next generation of techs and reward the experienced tech who may be slowing down but has the ability to teach and lead others.

"This system gives a guy who has put 25 or 35 years into this industry a way to make a living without having to crawl around and under cars for 10 or more years," Quinn said. "We need to be realistic and honor these people who have given their sweat and blood. We believe it's important to extend their careers, to create an environment for people to become teachers and mentors and pass it on to the next guy."

Step 4: Celebrate success. Shops that have been using a mentor-apprentice program for a number of years often point with great pride to a mentor now working in the shop who started out there as an apprentice himself. Such apprentices are so engrained into the shop's culture and so thoroughly understand the apprenticeship process that they often become eager and successful mentors.

Whether your shop's apprenticeship program is based on a two-, three- or four-year plan, it's important to recognize an apprentice's successful progress along the way —and not just with small steps up in pay. At B & J Body Shop in Rancho Cordova, Calif., for example, apprentices may finish the program in three or four years, but in either case, they are ceremoniously presented with a welding jacket, a symbol to themselves and their co-workers of their completion of the apprenticeship

Claypool said mentorship programs can address the ongoing technician shortage. "And this can work for any size of shop that is serious about taking a new approach to 'growing its own technicians,'" he says. "Offering entry-level employees a training path will make it easier for a shop to recruit new workers."

About the Author

John Yoswick | Contributing Editor

John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore., who has been writing about the automotive collision repair industry since 1988. He can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected].

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