Why the Automotive and Collision Industries Are Losing the Employee-Retention War 

by Joel Gausten

Many of you reading this may remember me as the old editor of this magazine, so let me quickly fill you in on what I’ve been doing since late 2021. Before landing my current role as an editor for an international nonprofit organization, I spent 14 months as a job coach in New Hampshire. In that role, I helped people in their twenties and thirties focus on their career goals, better organize their résumés and determine the right employers they should pursue based on their skills and ambitions.

When I decided to move on from that position to pursue work closer to my skills and ambitions, I found myself slugging it out in the job marketplace alongside millions of other folks. The lessons I learned from these two experiences could fill 10 books, but since I’m limited to around 1,200 words here, I’ll stick to presenting what I believe are some of the reasons why the automotive and collision repair industries are having such a hard time attracting and retaining younger employees – and what it can do to turn things around. 

Younger Employees Are Afraid to Stay with You

The next time you have a few minutes, go through LinkedIn and check out a few profiles for professionals in their early twenties through early thirties who work in other industries. It’s likely you’ll see people staying at a position for 12 to 18 months before moving on to something new. Years ago, this may have been a red flag for an employer who’d see a résumé like that and immediately question that potential hire’s commitment level. I don’t disagree with that concern, but one surprising thing I discovered while working in the job coaching field is that longevity at a previous position is now a potential barrier to future employment. A more “old-school” employer may still look at a potential hire’s 10-year stint at a past company as an indicator of that person’s loyalty and ability to hold down a steady job, but there’s a much greater likelihood that the majority of today’s hiring managers will view this candidate as someone who’s been applying their talents in just one direction for far too long – possibly leading to a stale skill set or (even worse) a decade’s worth of bad habits. 

 I’m the first person to scratch his head over Corporate America’s willingness to embrace a revolving-door workforce. Frankly, this mindset is utterly insane. After all, if an employer is looking to hire someone who’s acquired a variety of skills by jumping around, shouldn’t they expect their new hire to bounce after a year or so? That’s not how you build stability in your operation and work culture. 

The good news is that the automotive and collision repair field is one of the very last industries in this country that values employee longevity. The bad news is that you need to work damn hard to push against a culture that has made job-jumping the norm. In the November 2023 issue of Hammer & Dolly (available online at grecopublishing.com/hd1123askmike), Mike Anderson of Collision Advice shared how one of his shop clients uses retention bonuses to encourage employees to stick around. The owner of this shop gives his employees a $500 retention bonus for the first year, $1,000 for the second year, $1,500 for the third year and so on. That’s not a bad idea at all. 

Do you have a solid training plan in place for employees to sharpen their skills consistently? Are you an innovative, tech-savvy owner who provides your employees with the most current equipment and processes available? Do you communicate to a potential employee what they could make if they stay with you for five or more years? What are some other ways you’re incentivizing them to stay with you for the long haul?

Start thinking in these directions immediately, as securing long-term employees through the allure of a steady paycheck alone just doesn’t cut it anymore – especially in this economy. If you want to grow a dependable long-term employee base, it’s your responsibility to present them with a clear career path and reward them for not leaving. You need them more than they need you. 

You Don’t Clean Up – or Shut Up

I say this with the utmost respect for my friends in the industry: More than a few of you run absolute dumps. Sure, your customer waiting area may be spotless and impressive, but what about that hellhole in the back? Is garbage everywhere on the floor? How many political signs and posters of women in bikinis are on the walls? In 2024? (You know who you are.) To be blunt, you can’t afford to show a potential hire — and, in some cases, their parents, guidance counselors, etc.— that they’d be working in tacky squalor.

In addition to simply cleaning up the mess in your shops, you need to tidy up the social culture within your four walls as well. Today’s society is more politically and socially varied than ever. Whether you agree with concepts like “social justice,” “cultural sensitivity” and “gender fluidity” doesn’t matter – the fact is that younger members of today’s workforce do care about these things. A lot. I raised my stepson in rural New Hampshire, and even his high school had a transgender student support group. 

Do I personally align with “woke” culture? Not always, but that doesn’t matter – and it doesn’t matter if you do, either. Why alienate a potential hire because your current staff wants a picture of a half-naked woman on the wall or you want to display campaign posters for your favorite political candidate? Are you ready to call your employees by their preferred pronouns? Your competitors in other fields sure are. Your job is to fill your business with employees with the skills to keep your customers and partners happy – not to make your business a reflection of your sociopolitical beliefs. Save that stuff for your dinner table, and keep it out of your bay. 

Why the Industry Can – and Will – Win 

Simply put, cubicle farms suck. There are few things more impersonal than having to run a simple question or a time-off request through a 10-person Human Resources email chain and then wait for a reply. I had clients at my previous job who hated those environments. Why? Because they just loved working with their hands and didn’t want to waste their time writing an email to someone they’ve never met to ask if they could leave early to take their kid to a dentist appointment. One of the greatest things about most automotive and collision shops is that employees see the owners every day. You’d be stunned by how rare that kind of interaction is these days, especially when some companies competing for your hires have 300 employees. 

There’s an intimacy and family spirit in both the automotive and collision repair industries that is virtually non-existent in almost every other profession out there. Use that rare gift to your highest advantage. Host regular parties or other social events for your team. Don’t just throw a few pizzas on a table once a month; invite your employees to a family-friendly place on a Saturday afternoon – on your dime – and encourage them to bring their kids and/or significant others. Laugh with them. Make them feel like they’re part of your family – because they’ll be spending a lot more time with you than their actual one. Market these things to your potential hires. It’s simple stuff, sure, but believe me – this is an art that’s dying in today’s workplace. Be the industry to keep it going. Your employees will love you for it – and stay with you for more than 18 months. 

I’ll always have a deep love and appreciation for this industry, and I hope these few words have helped shed some new light on an old problem. I wish you well in your search for new employees. You have an extraordinary opportunity to offer them.

Want more? Check out the March 2024 issue of AASP-MN News!