Strategies to add more young people to your work force

May 1, 2019
There’s plenty your shop can do to bridge the gap to this generation and help build a new workforce that keeps both your business and the industry at large thriving.

What’s wrong with kids these days?

Every generation in this culture asks the same question as it struggles to understand why the world it built isn’t good enough for the people it created. The answer is pretty simple.

There’s nothing wrong with them.

Young people have their own interests and priorities. They want to cut their own path in life. Someday they’ll have their own kids and end up asking the same question.

That response, however, isn’t a sufficient answer for an automotive service industry desperately needing to replace greying shop staffs with a new generation that just doesn’t seem interested in this work. The jobs are there. Opportunities to grow and earn significant money are readily available, yet millennials have their attention elsewhere.

(Photo courtesy of Chantilly Auto Body) Chantilly Auto Body continually updates its apprenticeship program which pairs young people with seasoned technicians.

Here’s where you come in. There’s plenty your shop can do to bridge the gap to this generation and help build a new workforce that keeps both your business and the industry at large thriving.

Doing so involves utilizing the following five steps.

Step 1. Get involved with schools
Collision repair isn’t the only industry being largely ignored by young people. Interest in trade work in general has been dropping for several decades. Brandon Eckenrode, Director of Development for the Collision Repair Education Foundation (CREF), says this decline can be attributed largely to the wide-spread belief that a four-year college education is the only path to success. He says overcoming that belief is perhaps the biggest challenge repairers face in convincing young people to join their industry.

So pervasive is this perception that it negates interest in repair career s on multiple fronts. Not only do young people and their parents both become convinced that a repair career is no avenue to success, school administrators frequently cut funding and investment in repair programs since they too see little future in this work. “A lot of these programs look like they did 20 years ago,” says Eckenrode. “That’s not going to draw students in. It’s going to do the opposite.”

This isn’t a localized issued. Repair programs nationwide are being eroded. That doesn’t mean a concerted, nationwide initiative is needed to address it. “This is a national problem with a local solution,” says Eckenrode.

Much of that solution rests with repairers who can take effective, proven steps such as getting involved with school committees and advisory boards (which you can do on your own or through a shop association). “Getting involved shows administrators that there is a market for these programs,” he says. This input can be significant since automotive programs tend to be expensive, which makes them obvious targets for budget cuts.

Eckenrode adds that taking a role in education also gives repairers a chance to work directly with instructors to discuss entry level skill development and other issues to help students make themselves more employable. Addressing these issues now benefits students and shops since it helps both steer clear of potential early workplace problems and instead concentrate on developing technical and other capabilities that keep operations and careers online.

Want to go one step further and make a big difference today? Put your dollars to work and help sponsor a program. Eckenrode says putting a fresh coat of paint on the wall or floor in a program lab can make it much more appealing to perspective and current students. Consider donating uniforms to help students look and feel more professional. Eckenrode encourages shops to notify CREF of schools that may not be aware of the grant and scholarship opportunities it offers to fund collision programs and careers.

Step 2: Engage with students and their parents

Your presence at a school or a job fair or other venue where you spend face time with students and parents too can make a big difference. “Meeting perspective employers means a lot to students since it gives them a different perspective on their education,” says Eckendrode. The connection between education and a role in the workplace becomes clearer.

(Photo courtesy of Mayfield Collision Centers) Adding a fresh coat of paint to the walls and floors of repair programs labs can make them more attractive to current and perspective students.

These opportunities also allow you to explain the benefits of a repair career that can make it more appealing than immediately heading off to college. (You’ll want to get parents involved in this discussion as well.) For one, a repairer can start earning money immediately and in a matter of years turn a career into a six figure salary. That’s a stark difference from the future many college graduates face after being saddled with significant student debt that can force them to live at home for years while working a series of entry level jobs.

A repair career also comes with plenty of opportunity. Eckenrode notes that working in collision repair opens the door to careers working for insurers, tool companies and lots of other vendors. Students also can take their skills practically anywhere in the country. “I tell them whether they want to work in New York, LA, or wherever they want to go, give me your resume. There are jobs,” says Eckendrode.

Possibilities like these may not be apparent to students and parents — until you step in.

Step 3: Find the best new workers
Meeting students early in their careers also is one of the best ways to identify the young people who will be successful in your training or mentoring/apprenticeship programs. Rob Ellison, Manager of Business Development for Chantilly Auto Body in Chantilly, Va., started work on an apprenticeship program at his business four years ago. Based on his experience, finding students who have a genuine interest in repair is the key. “When I’m interviewing, I’m looking for someone who is bright, who asks questions about the business and is really interested,” he says.

From there, he’ll speak with the instructor to see if that student demonstrates interest in school and the program coursework. “We ask, ‘Which students are serious about taking this to a next level?’” he says.

Step 4: Set expectations
Keeping otherwise interested, successful candidates in place is much of the focus of the update Ellison is performing on his program, especially after losing several highly touted candidates for other pursuits. Ellison believes their exit may have been due to a lack of specific goals. Now he emphasizes creating clear expectations for both the candidate and the shop.

“We’re setting up specific goals they did to meet at 3, 6, 12 and 18 month intervals,” he explains. “At those points we sit down with the mentor to discuss progress and see if there are any weaknesses that need to be handled with more experience or maybe some I-CAR training.”  

The bottom line here – you have to keep talented people, especially young people, engaged with the job if you expect them to stay. With so many other opportunities available, your shop needs to make the case that their time is being used wisely and for their (and by process your) benefit.

Obviously, this is no easy task. Ellison notes that many teenagers have difficulty staying focused. For every 10 candidates his business brings in, it typically keeps just three since the others “have their minds elsewhere.”

(Photo courtesy of ABRA) Many of the tools you use everyday make collision repair programs expensive ventures that administrators often target with budget cuts. By supporting schools, you can keep these programs funded.

Turnover like this can be a serious impediment to building a successful training program. Ellison points to a potential solution with a lesson he wants his young trainees to come away with, development of life skills. You might need to discuss maturity issues with them since no one else may have.

Young workers need to accept the necessity of being able to get themselves up in the morning and ready to go to a job and then start working once they arrive, Ellison says. “Once someone learns that, we can talk about going to the next level.”

Step 5. Create a comprehensive mentoring/apprentice program
Indeed, a training program that adds new levels and evolves is better set to succeed. Ellison says developing his program has been a “journey” and notes the changes he has made to his to help keep young workers on track.

Early on, he discovered that some of his apprentices already were working part-time jobs. He responded by offering more competitive pay that allow them to part ways with their other jobs and concentrate on learning repairs. These days he’s contemplating adding new levels to his program, such as journeyman or master technician to continue challenging trainees to add skills that make them more money and grow his business.

Ultimately, that’s the goal of any training program: Grow your business by growing your staff. Meet young people half way and you’ll be on your way to bringing in the new energy and fresh outlook the repair industry desperately needs. Along the way, you’ll also make an important discovery.

The kids are all right.

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