Educating the next generation: Lessons from collision, independent repairers

Jan. 1, 2020
Did you send more than three text messages today?

Here are some tips you can use to help recruit new talent into your distribution business.

Did you send more than three text messages today?

Did you update your MySpace page this week?

Does your iPod include songs by Rihanna, The Killers, Dashboard Confessional and Maroon 5?

If you answered "no" to all of these questions — or if you're not really sure you even understood all of them — chances are you're not among the "next generation" to work as technicians, managers, counter staff and eventually owners of automotive aftermarket facilities.

But there are plenty of good reasons why it makes good business sense to take a role in training and educating this next generation. Without them, for example, this industry's technician shortage, and lack of good, qualified counter staff, will only get worse. And whether it's your son or daughter, a local high school or college student or that 20-something new employee, someone from this next generation is apt to be among those interested in one day buying your business and funding your retirement — if you've given them the tools, information and experience they need to succeed.

Here are some things you can begin doing right now to help educate that next generation.

Let students visit your business

Even the best students at the best training programs are apt to feel overwhelmed their first day on the job in a "real shop or store." Help give them a better idea of what to expect by inviting instructors to bring students in to visit your facility. This can also help this next generation keep your business in mind when they're looking for work, as it will become the benchmark against which they will measure others — which may make it harder for competitors who don't have as nice a facility compete for those employees and in the future.

Pony up a donation

For repairers, I-CAR Education Foundation is asking shops to donate $100 a year to assist the non-profit foundation with its ongoing work to attract entry-level students to auto body training and assist in preparing them to enter the industry. The foundation will return 85 percent of funds donated by shops within a region back to collision repair training programs in that region, to help these schools acquire up-to-date curriculum or other training tools they lack — and for which they may not have a budget.

"The program is designed to pool small donations from shops to help their local career and technical schools and colleges produce well-trained entry-level employees for the industry," Tom McGee, CEO of I-CAR says of the foundation's efforts.

By helping fund the purchase of up-to-date curriculum, for example, the $100-a-shop program could help a training program meet the qualifications that would allow next generation students to leave the program and enter the industry not only with better training, but with Gold Class points as well. For more information, visit the Foundation's Web site at or call (888) 722-3787, Ext. 283.

There are a number of similar programs offered through schools around the country that train people to work in jobber and retailer stores. Donating to some of these causes will definitely elevate your profile as a company that invests in the future.

Become a Big Brother/Big Sister

Rochelle Thielen, a business development manager for Mitchell International, said she is a mentor for a 12-year-old-girl through the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program in Van Nuys, Calif. She sees such programs as a great way for those in the industry to not only give back to their community, but also to help introduce the opportunities this industry offers to those in the next generation, who might not otherwise think about a career in the aftermarket.

"One of the things I noticed is that until she met me, her idea of where she could go in life was very, very limited," Thielen says of her Little Sister. "Looking around at what her parents did, the kind of jobs that were in her area, she didn't have anything to aspire to. I think exposing some of the options to kids like that gives them a whole new perspective on what they can do with their life. This is an industry that has a lot of career advancement in it."

For more information on the program, visit at

Help them get the tools they need

Laura Angell, a collision repair instructor at Warren Technical College in Lakewood, Colo., says she worked with local shops and vendors to set up an internship program that also helps young technicians acquire the tools they need in the industry.

If a student saves $400 for tools during his or her internship at a shop, the shop matches that $400 and Snap-on also offers a $400 credit, so the student can acquire $1,200 worth of tools in just a few months. This is a great opportunity for a jobber or WD location to work with its tech customers to help them bring in new help. Plus, it will help keep customers coming back to its counters. Distributors can implement similar incentives, except the tools counterpeople need will involve training and parts knowledge.

Get involved with SkillsUSA

SkillsUSA gives students a chance to compete at a local, state, national and even international level.

The competition can help boost students' motivation, confidence and performance. And as Angell points out, the national drop-out rate for high school students involved in clubs or activities like SkillsUSA is less than 4 percent, compared to an overall drop-out rate of between 22 and 26 percent.

While instructors at schools often organize the SkillsUSA competitions, they generally need members of the industry to serve as judges or to donate items for prizes at the event. (It's also a great chance to scout out new talent coming into the industry.)

Sponsor a scholarship

To honor the company's founder and encourage next generation students to enter the industry, Heitzman Body & Paint in Beaverton, Ore., sponsors an annual scholarship to the collision repair training program at Portland Community College (PCC).

Most schools have a foundation that accepts scholarship donations (which usually makes the donation tax-deductible) and can help you determine how much or how little you want to be involved in establishing selection criteria, etc.

An endowed scholarship (one named after the company or person of your choice) at PCC, for example, requires a donation of $10,000.

Aside from helping a student and the school, such scholarships are also an opportunity for positive publicity for your company in your community, as many such scholarships are announced at high school graduations and in local newspapers.

Be a guest lecturer

Steve White, an instructor and chairman of the PCC collision repair training program, says that for several years, his program's advisory committee has arranged to have shop owners, vendors or technicians make short presentations to students on a variety of topics. Some have been technical — one was offered by a local airbag installer, for example — while others relate to trends in the industry, employer expectations, etc.

"The more involvement students have with shop owners and others actually working in the industry, the more realistic their expectations are when they graduate," White says.

"And some things just get through better to students coming from a shop owner rather than just an instructor. We can repeatedly tell them about the necessary safety equipment, but it may only hit home when a potential employer tells them he's fired people for failing to use it."

It may be beneficial to arrange a speaking engagement to educate the next generation about parts distribution.

Get them out of the building

Stop and think about whether you have learned about ways to work smarter, not harder, during times you've left the counter to attend local association events or national industry events like the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week (AAIW) or your program group's annual convention. Have you participated in a "20 group" or toured other stores? Getting your next generation employees out of the store to learn is a good way to bring them along. Just as White says that his students most often take to heart what a shop owner tells them, your employees (particularly if they are related to you) might best take a lesson you're trying to impart to them if they also hear it from others.

Hold an open house or 'summer camp'

Rod Kohlhepp, collision repair instructor at Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin, says every year shop owners and others in the industry help the school hold a career day in the program's shop. High school students spend several hours at various stations, getting a chance for some hands-on experience.

Members of the industry help the students use the proper protective gear and walk them through the various steps of collision repair.

Kohlhepp says the event is a great way to get the next generation excited about working toward a career — and to find out before they start classes if they have some of the basic aptitudes needed to succeed.

Schools and the industry could start that recruiting process even earlier by offering a week-long "automotive summer camp" for grade-schoolers.

An increasing number of parents are looking for "camp" experiences that will help their children do some career exploration. With the proliferation of vehicle customization shows on TV, kids are more interested than they have been in decades in working on cars or selling automotive parts.

Make sure they learn all the business

Each of Jerry and Liz Burns' four sons has worked in one capacity or another at the family's collision repair shop, Automotive Impressions, Inc., in Rio Rancho, N.M. But the Burns have made it clear that the road to company ownership for this next generation includes some time out in the shop, not just in the office.

"You have to make sure they understand the whole business, all aspects," Liz Burns says. "All four of our sons have spent at least some time working in the paint shop, in the metal shop. In order to get up front, we think it's very important that they understand what goes on in the back. They can't write a good estimate if they don't understand how to repair or paint a vehicle properly."

That process also helps the next generation determine where their skills and interests lie, the Burns say.

"We all probably think or want our kids to manage the business, but realistically speaking, they may rather be in the paint shop or the body shop," Liz Burns says.

Kelly Spence has also found value in giving his son Sam increasing responsibility at his shop, S & S Paint and Body in Bloomington, Ill. Sam has worked at the shop since his early teens, but since finishing high school last year he has worked as an apprentice technician and managed the shop's detailing department, which offers retail detailing services, as well as post-repair clean-up of vehicles.

This lesson also can be applied to a warehouse distributor or parts store: make sure your planned successor has experience in all aspects of the company.

Join a school's industry advisory committee

If you agree that local high school or community college or tech school is (or should be) the best source of next generation employees, it's time to make the small commitment of time needed to serve on that school's advisory committee.

If the school's instructors and administrators aren't interacting with business owners and others in the industry several times a year, how can they hope to give students what they need to succeed in the industry? A good advisory committee helps ensure the school has the equipment, staff, curriculum and recruitment and placement programs to make that "next generation" of employees even better than the last.

One word of caution: Don't expect to join the committee and have things change overnight, and don't expect the school or program to change if you're not willing to be involved over time.

Pair up the experienced employee with the apprentice

No, you can't read anything about the future of training in this industry without the concept of a mentorship program being discussed. Making it work in your business can be a challenge, but those who have made it work say that it's absolutely the best way to train the next generation — and keep experienced techs and counterpeople working and earning a good living longer.

Michael Quinn's team structure system at his 911 Collision Centers in Tucson, Ariz., teams two experienced technicians (paid on salary) with three apprentices (paid hourly). 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 says it's an effective way to train the next generation and reward the experienced employee who may be slowing down but has the ability to teach and lead others.

Looking to get started? A good first stop could be the Mentors@Work Web site (, which offers links to resources, as well as tools and services to help create a mentorship program in your business.

Educating the next generation of technicians, estimators, shop owners, WDs and counterpeople is by no means a task that can be left only to schools and training organizations. It's something in which every shop and every organization in the industry can participate.

But when you consider the types of actions you can do to help, it becomes clear that some require time and some require money, but rarely do they require both. But in either case, that investment in the "next generation" today will pay off in business benefits down the road.

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