Better Know a Tech

April 25, 2023
Everybody is looking to find technicians, but who are these people, anyway?

Some kids just get lucky. Some people are still searching for their career path in high school, in college, or just after college—some of us are still looking. But for some kids, their destiny is pre-ordained if they want it.  

That was the case for Samantha Welch. Long before her current role as an estimator at Key Collision in Rochester, New Hampshire, her grandfather inspired a career in automotive repair by putting a wrench in her hand at a young age. From there, the decision was easy. 

“As I grew up I realized, you know, the more I look at cars, the more I wanted to get into it, and I finally just decided to go for it,” says Welch. “And it was one of the best options in my life to do.” 

But of course, not every tech comes to collision repair like Welch. Some prospective employees have no experience with collision repair or even cars before starting their careers. That is, in essence, a good thing. The industry needs so many techs that no background can be overlooked. 

But a background is more than just some words on a resume. Who are these technicians, and what do hiring managers need to know to attract them and retain them? To begin to answer these questions, FenderBender spoke to one of them, as well as some people who have seen enough of them to offer some insight. 

Loving the Challenge 

Even for someone like Welch, who had been interested in automotive repair nearly all her life, she still faced obstacles when it came time to choose a career. While her family was completely supportive, she says, friends were more skeptical.  

“Some of them told me I’d never make it,” she recalls, “It’s a man’s field. I should do something more girly. But my family backed me 100% of the way and definitely helped push me through it.” 

Welch was indeed undeterred, attending a technical high school near Corning, New York, where she was a standout student. She was a member of the National Technical Honor Society and was a finalist for the TechForce Foundation’s 2020 FutureTechs Rock Award in the collision repair segment. She won a SkillsUSA regional competition and placed fifth in the national event. 

While in high school Welch started work as a detailer, which wasn’t really her strong suit, she says. But she decided to go on to college and earned an associate’s degree in applied science. While she says all of it was “awesome,” estimating is what really stuck out to her and at the time of this reporting had been an estimator at Key Collision for four months. 

“[In estimating] just like, everything changes, and you're constantly changing, and you're constantly trying to challenge yourself, it's a puzzle to get it all together,” Welch says “It's a puzzle to find every little piece you need, and help out the text as much as you can.” 

For Welch, the challenge is part of the attraction. But for others, they may not see the level of work that is involved to having success in collision repair. Identifying employees that want to take on that challenge to get better every day is a key part of recruitment, Welch believes. 

“You never really know what you're getting into with each car,” Welch says. “It's always going to be different. And I've seen a couple of people come in, be really confident about it, and then they mess up one thing and now they're all down on themselves. And you can't get down on yourself, you have to keep pushing and keep pushing. You can't stop.” 

Welch believes it’s important that prospective techs get exposed to what it’s like to work in a real shop early in the process, in high school. The opportunity to pursue an internship in a working body shop exposes that student to find out if this is really something for them or not. And if so, the shop then has an employee already in the building, ready to learn. 

For that tech to want to stay there for the long haul, the culture also has to be right. 

“There's been quite a few places I've worked that it's all work and strictly no fun,” says Welch. “And it gets kind of aggravating because you can walk in having a bad day or you can walk in having a good day, and just the mood of that shop, you know, kind of takes it down. But the place I work, that's nowhere near anything like that, like, we have fun, but we have fun while we're working. We lighten the mood. We laugh, but we also make sure we're getting our work done on time.” 

“Look for the ‘Give a S---” 

Jaime Angell and Karin Ruser describe themselves as “work besties” with Caliber Collision even though they come from very different backgrounds. Angell, regional vice president for Colorado, was like Welch, she grew up in collision repair as her parents owned a body shop. Such was the influence of cars in her family’s household that she had to rebuild a total loss in order to get her first car at the age of 16. 

“The funny part is that made me say, I will never ever, ever work for a body shop, and I will never get in this business,” Angell says now. “And then I took a job while I was going to college at the University of Denver, at an independent multi shop here in Colorado. To work at part time that was working with my college schedule, and paying well, and I loved it, I ended up just falling in love.” 

Ruser, operations specialist for the Colorado and Wyoming market, was from a completely different background. Her parents both worked white collar jobs and Ruser expected to go to a standard four-year college and enter the corporate world. But college didn’t turn out to be what she thought it was, and she ended up taking a year off to figure out what she really wanted. It was during that time she got a job answering phones at a body shop. She gradually learned her way into other aspects of the business and developed a passion for it. 

“Just kind of grew from answering phones, teaching myself how to write estimates, running the shop, upper management,” Ruser says. “And now I'm to the point where I want to give back. So, training and development and making sure that we bring our next generation of out of body technicians and estimators.” 

Though both women are now well established in their careers, the disparate backgrounds they came from are still common paths for technicians getting into the business today. Some have extensive experience and some have none. The challenge shop owners face today is how to identify talent in people with limited experience. Ruser has a simple formula. 

“So, the first thing that comes to mind is I always say, you probably can't put this in print, but you always look for the, ‘give a s---,” she says. “You can teach the skill, but they need to have to give a s---. So, when we typically hire newer, not even necessarily younger, but newer people into the industry, because sometimes there is a second career in their development, they have to have that drive of, ‘I really want to be here, I want to learn, I'm going to put my phone away for eight hours and just focus.' So that's kind of what I look for when I'm looking for somebody to train.” 

Though perhaps phrased more colorfully, it’s the same sentiment Welch shared about her experience coming up with other students. Those who are most excited about the work are the ones who are going to push through challenges and work to get better. And that starts with capturing their interest in the first place. 

Angell gives an example of her father, who went to school to be a body tech, and that was what he did for 20 years. She contrasts that with techs coming up today who may want to move into another area eventually. So it isn’t enough to get them interested in one path, shops need to offer more to present a full career option. 

“There's so many different options, there's so many different opportunities, that even if, let's say they struggle with doing mud work, but they've got a mechanical aptitude, we have a huge need for collision mechanics as well within the shops,” Angell says. “And so trying to kind of stay with them to develop them so that we capture their interest, because a lot of the people coming into the business, it's more of a, once you get them there and they're captivated for a year, they can become lifers, but it takes a little bit longer to create that relationship and create that interest.” 

Ruser cites an example of how no matter how much you try and recruit new techs, sometimes you find them in totally unexpected ways. She has had parents who come in as customers and end up asking for information they could pass along to their sons and daughters about how to get started in collision repair.  

Angell cites an other example: She had a customer who herself saw the help wanted signs and decided collision repair might just be for her. It all comes back to capturing attention and being on the lookout for the right talent, in whatever form it takes. 

“She said, ‘You know what, I want to get my hands dirty. I want to do this. It sounds super fun,” Angell says. “And she was a customer at one of our locations a month ago. And she starts now and two weeks from today, in our technician apprenticeship program. So we'll get them from anywhere if they're the right person.” 

About the Author

Todd Kortemeier

Todd Kortemeier is former editor of FenderBender magazine.

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