Menefee: Developing Training and Career Paths in a Small Shop

July 1, 2024
Cross-training is one solution that may work for you. 

I see articles all the time talking about setting up training pathways for technicians and career pathways for employees, but I always feel like they are geared toward larger shops. A smaller shop may not have the ability to have technicians and employees step away from the shop for an extended period or even know where to start. It also feels like it’s hard to set up a career path in a small shop because there are only so many positions available. That is how I have felt in the past -- and still sometimes feel -- with all the new technology coming out in cars and trying to keep up with training. 

As I was growing my shop, I knew there was one important issue I did not want to run into and that I had seen other shops struggling with, being beholden to the only technician skilled in a particular task. You see it a lot in small shops with the paint department. They have one painter and no backup painter, and if the painter is sick, takes vacation, or quits, the whole shop gets thrown into a tailspin. I see on a regular basis shops relying on their jobbers or paint company field tech to come in and help paint a car because they do not have another option. I personally feel that if this is the case for your shop, then you are ill-prepared and setting yourself up for a headache down the road.  

Currently, I employ 12 people, which includes myself. We have worked really hard at cross training in all of our departments, and this is the breakdown of how many employees can do different jobs in my shop: 

  • Body technicians with frame and welding experience: four 
  • Teardown/reassembly technician: nine 
  • Mechanic/suspension technician: five 
  • ADAS technician: four 
  • Blueprinter/estimator: five 
  • Parts/mirror-matching: 11 
  • Prep/buff: six 
  • Paint: five 
  • Management of front office: four 
  • Production: five 

You can tell by our numbers that we would need to be missing four people out of our shop before it would really throw the shop in a tailspin from someone not knowing how to perform a task. As a small shop, we got here by doing a lot of cross-training among employees and adding in off-site training where we could.  

A few years back, I talked to my two senior body technicians and my painter about cross-training younger employees and how important it was for the health of the shop. I also explained to them that if we had techs cross-trained, I was 100% more likely to approve vacation time and time off work because it wouldn’t be putting us in a bind. What I have found to be key was making sure my senior technician liked the person they were cross-training. If my senior tech wasn’t a fan of a junior tech, I wouldn’t force the issue.  

I also started using the Efficiency Boot Camps with the Matrix Trade Institute to help with training. I love the boot camps they offer because they are intense four days of hands-on training with a small class, usually less than 10 people, and the teachers have all been in their field of expertise for many years. They have a package that will cover the training, hotel and some food. The boot camps range from estimating, to blueprint accuracy, electrical repair, glue pull dent repair and many more options.  

I like the Matrix Trade Institute’s boot camps because I can send a technician – perhaps a blueprinter who has no skill set for dent repair – and this program will give him the basics and set him up with a good foundation. That way, my senior tech has a good jumping-off point on what to start teaching when we are cross-training.  

I’ve implemented the same concept in my office but will rotate them so they do a particular job for six months or a year and then transition to the next thing. That way, my entire office staff can do everything from estimates, supplements, parts ordering, deliveries, production and anything and everything else that needs to be done in the shop that an actual technician is not doing.  

Cross-training is free, and as an operator of a small shop, we like that. But if you do want to make the investment in some of your employees for fee-based training, there are a lot of options available to you for assistance. Check with your state's workforce solutions division, your chamber of commerce, and Better Business Bureau. Any of these organizations will have some knowledge on what is available to you or be able to point you in the right direction. For my shop, the Texas Workforce Solutions had government money this year that was earmarked for training individuals in underserved industries and the Automotive Industry fell into the category. I was able to send a handful of my employees to the Matrix Trade Institute and was reimbursed 90% of the cost. All I had to do was jump through a few hoops and get approval and then send in the paperwork to get reimbursed. It was pretty easy, and who doesn’t like free money to train their employees? 

Again, as a small shop you may not feel you can set up clear training and career pathways for your employees. But you can find a solution that works for you. For my small shop, there is not a lot of room for growth other than taking over my job, so I have focused on cross-training and paying those employees accordingly for their skill sets as they acquire them. Personally, I would much rather have 12 employees who are well versed in every aspect of my shop than 12 employees just well versed in one thing. Find what works for your shop. 

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