Grow from Within: Cultivating Talented Technicians In-House

by Chasidy Rae Sisk

Are you constantly looking for new technicians, painters or estimators to staff your shop? Does it seem impossible to find qualified, talented help these days? You’re not alone. Lots of shop owners report feeling the exact same way. 

But that’s not the case for everyone. Barry Dorn (Dorn’s Body & Paint; Mechanicsville, VA) found a way to combat the technician shortage that his facility was facing by shifting his outlook 10 years ago.

“We started ‘growing’ our own technicians in 2013,” he shares. “We decided that hiring techs from other facilities wasn’t in our best interests in most cases because they have their own way of repairing vehicles that may not be the way that the OEM requires us to repair them. Building our own technicians allows us to train them to repair vehicles the way the OEM requires; they only know one way of doing things, the right way, so we avoid introducing bad techniques to the facility.”

Developing talent from within the organization requires a certain type of environment. “The culture here is the most important aspect of what we do,” Dorn insists. “Recognizing that we must have a collaborative environment, which involves ongoing improvement, is critical to our mission.”

Building a culture of continuous improvement is imperative because this younger generation of collision repair professionals want to learn and advance. Joseph B. Lewis (“Raven”) has worked as a technician for the past six years. He studied auto body at a technical high school in 11th and 12th grade, and as a senior, he started his first tech job at a small shop that a friend told him about. He continued working there, doing insurance and restoration work, after graduation for several years, but “I really felt like there wasn’t much movement,” he recalls. 

“I wanted to kind of go up. I heard about this shop my aunts and uncles were telling me about, so I went there, which was Dorn’s Body and Paint with Barry Dorn. They hired me, and it was definitely a whole different animal than the last shop I worked at. It’s definitely a move up.”

What makes working at Dorn’s such an improvement? The ability to continue gaining certifications and advancing his career in the industry means a lot to Lewis. “Since I started working here, they’ve sent me to get my certification in KECO GPR+, I-CAR and hopefully OEM training going forward,” he shares. “Dorn’s is willing to invest in you to help you grow, whether that means providing tools for someone coming straight out of high school or enrolling you into I-CAR classes.”

For Lewis, the most exciting part of working in collision repair is seeing “how far we’ve come in this industry. At the previous shop I worked at, we used to drill holes and use a slide hammer to pull dents, and now at Dorn’s, I use a process called GPR+ which has no back side damage.” 

Working for a shop that offers opportunities to learn new things and advance in his career is a key ingredient in job satisfaction for Lewis, who says, “I personally want to learn as much as possible, so I can go into a situation fully confident that I can get the job done the correct way.”

As a shop that embraces advancing technology like ADAS and EVs, it’s vital that repairs be completed properly. “This is the future of our industry; vehicles will only get more and more complex to repair due to customer, OEM and insurer demands,” Dorn acknowledges. “The client wants convenience, the carriers want safety to lower bodily injury expenses, and the OEM wants the vehicle to be the exact same as it was prior to the loss without harming the OEM’s branding perception at trade in or lease turn in. The OEMs are also very concerned about crash safety once the vehicle is involved in another loss.”

Working at a shop that embraces technological advancements seems to hold an additional appeal for many younger industry professionals. “Apprentices want to work with their hands and their minds. They want to know how it must be done, and they need a workflow that explains this clearly. They expect to use a laptop and their tools,” Dorn notes, though he admits, “They can and do get overwhelmed at the massive amount of data that they must process for every single repair and the time that it takes to read the procedures.”

Pairing apprentices and other less-experienced new hires with mentors makes the learning process much smoother. According to Lewis, “It’s very helpful to have access to mentors at Dorn’s, who are willing to teach me new things and help me grow, especially coming from a shop that didn’t have one to now having someone that can show me different ways and more importantly the OE way.”

Of course, challenges exist in every situation, including for shops that develop technicians internally. “The issue is and always will be the time and financial investment that you must make to train and mentor the right person(s),” Dorn explains. “This takes years to do, and the process is not the quick fix that most are looking for. You must make sure that any employee mentoring an apprentice has the skill set to teach people. Most do not have this skill set. So many experienced technicians see training apprentices as something that slows them down or someone who can take their position away. But once you do find and educate the right person or people, the benefit is that they only know one way of repairing collision damaged vehicles.”

So, where does Dorn find these apprentices? “We work with various technical schools, and we also run ads looking for apprentices. This is something you must consistently do…not just when you need someone. These should be considered long-term strategies and not short-term fixes.”

Lewis encourages students to have confidence when looking for an employer: “Don’t be afraid of the larger, better-equipped shops that seem like they would never hire you because they just might. I wish I had started somewhere like Dorn’s sooner.”

Dorn offers some advice for shops that are struggling to find fresh talent and looking to develop an internal apprenticeship/mentorship program. “Speak with your technical staff and your managers first and obtain their buy-in. The entire facility must agree to be a part of the process; if they don’t, the process will not work. You need to consider the tooling that you will buy as well. The days of expecting the apprentice to absorb all tooling and training costs are now gone. You must be honest with the apprentices and make sure that they understand that this is a career path and the process will take years to accomplish. You must set monthly and yearly goals for both the apprentices and mentors. They need to always know where they stand at all times and if they are making the agreed upon process goals.

“You will quickly find out if you have the culture within your facilities to do this correctly. It won’t work if everyone is expecting it to fail or simply go away, but if you involve everyone from the beginning and tell them your expectations and the apprentices have a good attitude towards the process, it can be truly rewarding,” Dorn adds. “I can’t say growing our own technicians is pushing the easy button, but it’s the right thing for the future and has to be done for our industry’s survival.”

Want more? Check out the February 2024 issue of Hammer & Dolly!