Keeping Collision Repair Alive: Vo-tech Instructors Reflect on State of the Industry

by Alana Quartuccio Bonillo

Challenging. Difficult. Concerning. Unfortunately, these negative words are used all too often when describing the future of the collision repair industry based on the lack of new talent signing up to give an auto body career a shot.

It really can “take a village” to get young men and women started in a collision repair career. That’s why education is so very important.

Vocational training is key to opening the door to these careers. It’s where most collision professionals got their start. Thankfully, there are a number of experienced auto body pros who have devoted their own careers to showing young people the tools, resources and training they need to be successful in a trade that tragically falls victim to insurer-controlled labor rates, making it difficult to earn good wages and sending many to pursue other career paths. So, what does it take to encourage and motivate young people into a field that needs new blood as shops across the country feel the burden of a technician shortage that isn’t easing up anytime soon?

We asked three collision repair instructors – Bill Collins (Southeast Regional Vocational Technical High School; South Easton), Dwight Seaman (Blue Hills Regional Technical School; Canton) and Ken Stukonis (Assabet Valley Regional Technical High School; Marlborough) to weigh in on the challenges and impacts they face as they work to educate the industry’s future workers.

New England Automotive Report: How long have you been a collision instructor, and how has vo-tech education changed during that time?

Bill Collins: I’ve been teaching for about 19 years now. I’d say the biggest change is the students who come in don’t have any background working with tools. So, kids nowadays have a very basic, limited knowledge. As far as everything else, I’d say education is kind of the same, with the exception, of course, being the technology that has changed in the vehicles we fix today.

Dwight Seaman: I’ve been teaching for a little bit more than 20 years. What’s changed? Technology has changed, and therefore programs have changed. We now have cars that drive on their own, so we have to keep up with the technology.

Ken Stukonis: This is my 24th year at the school, and I am also a graduate. I graduated in 1986 and came back later to teach. From the time I started teaching, it really hasn’t changed a ton. There is more of a demand on academics than there was in the past. There are a lot more technical features in our trade now that the kids are actually very good with. It’s not as much about coming in to grind every day. A lot of the kids have skills in different areas and may be geared toward estimating, measuring systems or different things like mixing paints, which utilize computer-based programs.

NEAR: How do the number of students enrolled in collision repair programs presently compare to the past?

BC: It fluctuates. We’ve seen the program full and we’ve also seen it die down to having just a few enrolled. We are currently back to a point where we have a lot of students involved, and it’s definitely on an uptick. I think some of the students who come into the program don’t really know what it involves, but once they try out some of the equipment and processes, they have a better understanding and are able to see there is an opportunity to be creative that they didn’t think was possible in this trade.

DS: It’s kind of been a wrestling match, to be honest with you. Of all of my years here, one year will be strong, another will be weak. It’s kind of a difficult trade. There are a lot of different areas one has to be good at. There’s a lot of places that you can go – you can be a painter’s helper, you can be just a frame guy, you can be just a plastic bumper cover repair person. But in reality, the person who makes the money is somebody who can do all of those things. So, there’s a lot to know in collision repair, whereas in a lot of the other trades, you don’t have to have all that expertise. So, kids can be a little overwhelmed at what it takes to become a collision repair professional.

KS: The technology side is attractive for students, and I think we’re attracting more. We get a lot of kids who just really want to work when they get here now. The way society is today, kids aren’t building forts or working with their hands as much until they come to a school like this, so they are a bit behind with tool terminology unlike past generations who took wrenches to their bikes and took things apart. So, kids today start off at more of a basic point. I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all, just the way society is nowadays.

NEAR: What are your biggest challenges when it comes to attracting more people into the industry? What is your school doing to try to increase awareness of the program and attract/retain students?

BC: We do what is called an exploratory program where students can come through and explore all the programs at the school. It’s really up to the program and the instructors to create the “wow” factor for the students and the time we have to do so is limited. We really have one or two days to try to capture their attention. Having limited time doesn’t really give us a chance to show students what we do in auto body. We aren’t able to have them do a project that they can take home and have some pride in. In order for them to have something completed, the process would take more than one or two days.

DS: My wrestling match is with the labor rate. People can go into a trade similar to ours, like the electrical field, and make $28-$30 an hour one year out whereas with collision repair, they start out at $18, and it takes a while to work up to more. The schools can’t really can’t do anything. It’s the industry, and there’s not anything that the school can really do to help with that.

KS: We’re actually always fighting this kind of a stigma of what an auto collision shop is. Shops are not dirty, filthy environments with Uncle Jim smoking cigarettes in the corner. Now, shops are upgraded with great venting systems, sanding is done with vac systems, everything’s done in prep areas. I think people are more surprised by the technology that is in this trade. But the problem in our industry is that most go to a body shop once every 10 years. People don’t stroll into body shops until they have been in an accident, so a lot of people just really don’t know what we do. So, collision repair is kind of unknown when kids come through our shop, and I think that works to our strengths. We always attract a good number of students. We have 16 new freshmen. We bumped up this year from 14 to 16 as we had many that were first picks. It’s not an easy trade. The money is always tight and I can probably go on for hours about the labor rate. But when you talk about employability, our kids are going to go out there and get minimum wage when they can work at a store at the mall for the same, but this is more fun.

It’s also tough to get the industry to accept younger kids coming into it. We are lucky to have a great advisory board and a lot of our students are able to go work for those shops, but it can be tough if we try to branch out beyond that. They expect so much from kids, and they are only here for 1,500 hours. Students aged 13, 14 and 15 aren’t thinking about what they want to do for the rest of their lives, but by the time they are in their junior and senior years, they can make the decision about pursuing this trade as a career. It’s about making sure they are in the right situation and the right job. And shops have to realize they are getting someone with entry-level skills coming through their door. They won’t be able to paint a car or use the frame machine, but they know how to hold a paint gun and do the basics. They won’t be able to make a shop $1,000 in their first week, so that’s the kind of understanding we need to have about the students when they first get out there.

NEAR: What hurdles are you facing as an instructor (ie. budget/supplies/equipment/etc)?

BC: We are actually in decent shape. We are pretty good with supplies and budget. We try to stay up to date with the newest technology, and that technology can get very expensive. So, we do have to spread things out through the years and try and get what we can when we can, as the budget allows, and we’ve been actually pretty good with that. So, knock on wood, hopefully moving forward, that won’t be an issue. Our administration supports us, so I have no complaints.

DS: I can’t complain as we’re doing very well. The staff at the school takes care of our class very well. Constant changes and updates in technology is one weakness, but we have ADAS equipment, front-end machines and thensome. For a little shop, there isn’t much we don’t have, but there has been an increase in supplies that we need, such as tape, clear coat and body filler which has gone up likely 100 percent since pre-COVID where my budget has gone up about three percent. So, getting those supplies can be difficult.

KS: We are pretty lucky in that area and have everything we need; we have a decent enough budget. Sometimes it’s tough though, and thankfully, the Collision Repair Education Foundation has been great with giving us miscellaneous supplies. It’s great as items like plastic filler, sandpaper and dispensable items that we waste daily can really eat up our budget. It’s a big help because kids are here to learn, so they are going to go through supplies. We also apply for CREF grants and over the past six years, we’ve gotten over $100,000 worth of equipment from them.

NEAR: How can body shops get involved with local vo-techs to ensure there’s a future workforce pipeline, and how does the industry’s involvement impact student morale?

BC: Almost all schools have industry members on their advisory board which can be helpful by providing a place for a field trip where the students can visit their shop and see what a working shop is really like. I’ve had them come in as guest speakers to talk to the students about what goes on in their shops. There’s also the possibility of career fairs or getting students to be considered for employment at these shops. Just supporting us can go a long way. Some advisory members bring me plastic bumpers which we use for plastic repair training. It’s very valuable because it can be very expensive for us to purchase parts, so we’re happy to receive these donations. We’ve also talked to advisory board members about getting vehicles we can work on. The market for used cars has gone way up, and it’s difficult to get usable vehicles for training.

Seeing and hearing about the industry from others has a different impact on them as it provides students with a different perspective over what they get from their instructors. They’re seeing the technicians actually working on these vehicles, and they’re seeing the actual processes be used in a real life scenario. So, I think that really boosts their morale, as they can see work being done in the shops, and when they come back to the classroom, they have a better understanding of why we do things.

DS: Industry professionals can get on advisory boards or possibly teach a continuing education class. They can donate vehicles to be worked on, or if they have any parts lying around at the shop or tools they may have purchased but don’t use, the schools can certainly use them…unless it’s junk; we don’t want that. They can also really help out by hiring the students and pairing them up with somebody who has a good attitude about the career to teach them. You don’t want them to work with some grumpy technician who doesn’t want anything to do with the industry. You want to pair them with someone who can be a role model and is happy and excited about working on vehicles and fixing them to pre-loss condition versus putting a Band-aid and a bit of bubble gum to say they did a good job and beat the time. That’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for people who actually want to go about it the right way. There needs to be some type of internship to get kids instilled into the industry. No one should have to go in without some type of mentorship to get training.

KS: Being part of an advisory board is a great option. We have had many advisory board members come in and speak to the students. We instructors are with the students 30 hours a week. We become like their parents, so hearing from others is great. They will listen to them. Also, being willing to take the students in and mentor them once they leave the school is incredibly important.

NEAR: What role does the public’s perception of the collision repair industry play in the future of vo-tech education, and how can correcting this help solve the workforce shortage?

BC: That’s a tough one. People have cars, they get into accidents and take the car to the body shops to get fixed, and they go through insurance and they don’t actually see the process and the people who do the work. They drop off the car, the work is completed, they get their car back and hopefully are happy with the results. The other problem is obviously that the body shops are just not getting paid what they need to get paid thanks to the insurance companies. It’s really hard to attract entry-level technicians, when their peer students could be down the street working at a fast food place. Not that that is a bad thing, but they are making the same amount of money or more by working there when entry-level techs have to be at it for a couple of years before they actually start making good money. I think that trickles back to the insurance companies and how tough it is for the body shops to get paid for the job that they do. Technicians could be looked at like doctors. Doctors know the human body and the specific information to “repair” it. It’s the same thing with the vehicles, and with the technology today’s cars have, it’s even more important they are repaired correctly. To attract young technicians, pay is going to have to go along with it. So when it comes to public perception, I wish the public could understand that it’s not just getting your car fixed. There’s a lot more to it, and I don’t think anybody realizes that.

DS: I think the perception of the industry is underwritten by the insurance companies. Our school is registered as a repair shop. We teach the students about appraisals and negotiating. Every single time we write an estimate, it is triple what the insurance company estimates. We put in for $3,000, and they claim it’s $1,000. So, automatically we look like thieves. We are not thieves. We are the professionals; we know how to repair cars. The perception needs to be changed right up front by taking the authority that the insurance companies have away and putting it back where it belongs. Let the body shops do what they are supposed to do. We look like the bad guys because we have to collect from the consumer. Why do we have to be the bad guys? But the consumer doesn’t understand. Most only get into an accident once in a lifetime.

KS: I think the public is unaware of what we do. There is so much technology and skill involved. We teach a small part, but once they get into the industry, there is so much more – people drive their families in their cars, and those cars need to be brought back to pre-accident condition. I don’t think a lot of people understand how a car is supposed to collapse in an accident or that certain things need to be welded, riveted or glued. There are a lot of different technologies that need to be in place, and few people are aware of what has to be done. It’s a good profession, and people need to have their cars fixed. When you look around, there are body shops everywhere. It’s a great trade, and hopefully, we can get more kids to have a little bit more passion toward it and have great success in it.

The instructors have spoken. The solution to many of the issues surrounding attracting new blood lies in the hands of the body shops. It really does “take a village” so to speak. Volunteering time on school advisory boards, donating supplies or taking a chance on a young aspiring worker are all steps toward keeping the collision repair trade alive and welcoming to the next generation.


Want more? Check out the April 2023 issue of New England Automotive Report!