Creating a Workforce

by Travis Doyle, AASP-MN Collision Division Director

As a business owner or manager, it should no longer be a surprise that when you post an online help wanted ad, you get little to no response from qualified candidates. No matter what website you post the ad on or how much you pay additional to “boost” the post, the number of candidates applying keeps shrinking and shrinking. We no longer have the luxury of posting and waiting for the perfect candidate; there is no one to apply. 

All of this sounds bad for our industry, and a pain for the hiring manager or owner filling these open positions. But if you keep a positive mindset, this gives us independent automotive shops an opportunity and potential edge over our competitors. We, as independent shops, have the ability to be more creative in hiring solutions. It is to the point in the automotive industry that we need to create our future workforce ourselves by encouraging and implementing internship programs.

At our shop, Arrowhead Auto Body, we have had 11 apprentices on the body technician side over the last five years. Almost all of them have turned out to be great technicians and are now making a good living doing auto body. And for the ones who didn’t work out, they gave it a good shot, but it wasn’t a career for them. For the people that decide to stick with it for their lifelong career choice, it is an awesome industry to be a part of, with great pay. It may not be the cheapest option for getting new technicians, but they are trained the way you want them to do things and are usually dedicated to the shop.

Before you begin this internship journey, you will need to identify whether you have the right shop culture to sustain such a program. If you have a group that is closed off and not willing to help one another and can’t see the bigger picture, you are going to have issues bringing someone in with little to no knowledge. Now, if you have a shop culture that encourages group empowerment, helps one another and believes in a good future for the automotive industry, you will succeed.

The first step in this journey is going to be discussing and partnering with a current one of your “A” technicians who would be willing to take on an apprentice. This may not be the fit for every technician in the shop but the ones who have done it at our shop have been happy with the results. Another important thing to consider is some people work together better than others, so lining up the right people is key. One of the first things your “A” tech is going to want to know is how payment of this apprentice will work, and I will discuss those options later.

The second, but most crucial, step is hiring or promoting someone into this apprenticeship position. This is an important step as you want to make sure you are getting the right person because you do not want to invest too much time or money in someone who isn’t motivated or mechanically inclined. The first approach would be looking internally at the shop level. Often, there is someone in another department who would be interested in the shot to make a career in the automotive field. It’s always good to make sure anyone internally doesn’t want the position before looking externally for a candidate. We have had good results posting ads on Indeed or Facebook, through word of mouth and family members of employees or friends at the shop. We have also had success working with our local auto body college, Lake Superior College, and hiring students for three weeks during their winter break. This gives all parties a good chance to determine if it’s a good fit or not. It is important during the interview process to make sure their long-term goals align with your organization, and they’re motivated to learn, because it can be a long training process.

One of the barriers of entry for people starting out in the automotive industry is cost of tools. If your apprentice went to a vocational school, they may have received some large discounts, but if not, the cost of tools is intimidating. This is an area where many shops are taking different approaches and being creative with it. The best option and hiring incentive would be a tool allowance – a budget that the shop sets for the apprentice to buy tools and a box to get started. If you encourage people to buy cheaper end toolboxes and tools to start, a $1,000 will go a long way for the general tools needed. Other options we have done in the past is helping finance tools and deducting a set amount out of their paycheck. The last option that is also common would be to have a generic toolbox owned by the shop for people to use until they’re able to save up money to purchase their own. Whatever route you decide to take, it is an important step to make sure your intern succeeds.

There are a lot of shops that create timelines for the apprentice to follow that help benchmark their progress over time. This can be a great tool if you spend the time to build something out for your shop. But this isn’t essential for success. We have completed all our apprentices without a written timeline, and it has also been effective. An important piece of training for us to have them achieve first is the blueprinting and mirror matching process. If they can learn to disassemble a vehicle and follow these two processes, the rest of the operations usually fall in line.

One of the tough parts of having an apprentice program is determining how long it should take them to be ready to work without supervision. I’d say that it depends. Each person has a different pace of learning and has a certain level of confidence they need to build up. One thing is for sure, you don’t want to rush someone to be on their own because they will either fail or have poor workmanship for the shop, especially in a world of commission pay and when shop reputation is of high importance. I would say a general rule of thumb would be between six to 12 months of training time before an apprentice could be left on their own. Any further time, and it may seem like they start getting held back from excelling. 

You don’t want to be the shop that is constantly complaining that no one is applying to ads and how short-handed you are. You don’t want to be in the position that you are one technician away from being out of business when your last technician retires or quits. You want to be the shop who has a constant flow of new technicians to sustain your shop, grow into a bigger one, or purchase additional locations. Now is the time to implement an apprenticeship program to secure your shop’s future workforce!

Want more? Check out the October 2023 issue of AASP-MN News!