Future of Vo-Tech: A Collision Instructor Roundtable (Part 1)

by Chasidy Rae Sisk

For decades, the collision repair industry has sought more qualified technicians, yet over the years, the vocational and technical schools that typically fulfill this need have provided a dwindling supply of entry-level workers.

Is it due to students’ waning interest in the field, or are shops simply unable to retain young workers? Some shops complain that it’s about the quality of students who are graduating, yet they do nothing to ensure that technical schools are still teaching the trades, and without the industry’s involvement, there’s a real danger of collision programs becoming obsolete. Do you know what’s really happening in today’s trade schools? Probably not, but the teachers dedicated to teaching tomorrow’s technicians sure do!

New Jersey Automotive solicited feedback on these issues and more from four local collision instructors: Michael Bonsanto (Passaic County Technical Institute Vo-Tech; Wayne), Sam Lopez (Piscataway Magnet Schools; Piscataway), Bob Magee (Bergen County Technical High School; Teterboro) and Mike Nickerson (Salem County Vocational Technical School; Pilesgrove).

New Jersey Automotive: How long have you been a collision instructor, and how has vo-tech education changed over that time period, especially as it relates to the number of students enrolled in the program?

Michael Bonsanto: This is my fifth year teaching, but I served on the school’s advisory board for many years before becoming an instructor. I’m fortunate to work for a progressive program that has stayed pretty much the same in terms of how it’s administered; the only noticeable change I’ve seen was related to COVID when everyone had to adapt. Typically, 15 kids enter the collision program each year as freshmen, and another instructor and I teach them through their senior year. Usually, we look to place them in an industry job toward the end of their junior year, and we’ve done pretty well finding shops to take them over the past couple years. So far this year, we’ve placed six out of the 14 kids. Before I took on this role, I (like many in the industry) was under the impression that all collision students went to work in a shop, but that’s not true at all. If we can get a handful of kids into the industry and retain them in the shops, we’re doing a great job. And that’s definitely my goal since I became a teacher in hopes of helping to repopulate the industry.

Sam Lopez: During my tenure as a collision instructor, I’ve noticed major changes in the education system.  While attending Rutgers University, I spent much of my free time working at Walters’ Auto Body in Sayreville, NJ, until I graduated, after studying collision repair at the school where I am currently teaching. Like many students, I didn’t have a precise aim on what I wanted to do after college, but what I was sure about was the fallback I had working in the collision industry as a technician, which I had been all along prior to becoming an instructor. Once I entered the education field in 2013, it was a transitional period where Alternate Route (for teachers) was an option that was there for those blue collar individuals who did not necessarily have the college degree but wanted to get certified to teach at the high school level. Even though this program is still available today, it actually became more lengthy and really had nothing to do with collision repair but was mainly focused on the teaching concepts and group dynamics that I already studied during college. And yes, I still had to go through it and finish it. Looking back at the start of my teaching career, I see that the mentality of the students has shifted as cell phone use has become ubiquitous, and I miss those times when students could actually focus on one task and not be distracted by their cell phones. Also the number of students has gone down, and quite frankly, I do not know exactly why. I could speculate all day long, but the bottom line is, teaching is always reinventing itself, and so should we as educators.

Bob Magee: As a collision and mechanical teacher for 21 years, I’ve seen it basically change to a place where a lot of schools aren’t teaching vocational trades anymore. When I was younger, if you didn’t do well in regular school, you went to a technical school to learn a trade. And they were technical schools, but then every year, they removed more technical areas and put in more AP courses until it’s not really even a technical school anymore because no one considers the trades to be important anymore. But everybody drives, and those cars need to be fixed. We still have the same amount of kids coming into the program, but when I first started, the kids wanted to be in the program; that’s why they came to this school. But as the program started changing, they started changing the requirements for the kids who are admitted. So, a kid with a B-average can’t get into the program, even though they’re interested in working with cars. At the same time, everyone is being pushed to go to college, but how many kids attend college for four years and never get a job in the area they studied? They go to work doing something else entirely, so that was a waste of their time.

Mike Nickerson: I started teaching toward the end of the 2020-2021 school year with just 12 students. I now have 44 students enrolled in our collision program. (Read more about Nickerson’s journey to reignite the SCVTS collision program at grecopublishing.com/nja0522localnews.)

NJA: What are your biggest challenges when it comes to attracting more people into the industry, and how is your school trying to increase awareness of the program to attract and retain students?

MB: We start each year with 30 kids who are interested in automotive. In the first trimester, 15 kids go to mechanical and 15 to collision. They flip for the second trimester, and in the third, they decide which area to focus in. One of the biggest challenges is simply their age; they start this path at 14 years old with big ideas, but over time, they change their mind and decide to get into another trade or go to college. It’s up to us as instructors to get them excited if we want to maintain their interest in this field, but we also need help from the industry. Our program enjoys some great opportunities to take them on field trips to shops and have them do some job shadowing.

As the New Jersey I-CAR Committee chair, I also get to see what’s happening at other schools and in the industry. A lot of collision programs are being shut down at the school level as instructors retire or they face low enrollment, and that’s a tragedy because we have a huge deficit of talented collision professionals entering the field. I believe there’s a disconnect from middle to high school in addition to a lot of pressure for kids to pursue a college education. We need to do a better job of promoting the trades, and a positive change I’ve seen on the industry side is in the mentoring programs being offered at some shops. We’ve seen a lot of kids go to work for a shop after graduation only to be handed a broom for months, which causes them to leave. The industry is starting to realize that they need to pair new technicians up with mentors who can continue their training, and when we have employers who offer that type of culture and philosophy, it becomes a carrot we can dangle in front of them, promising a viable career path in an industry that’s willing to invest in their future.

SL: For student enrollment and education in general, I believe it is critical for all who want this industry to succeed to get involved. There is a very famous saying that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. That’s precisely why I think a lot of us do what we do. A number of instructors have our students participate in the SkillsUSA competition, which inspires them to show their skills and to experience what it is like to be under pressure during the competitions. I also think that shops like Dayton Toyota, Tri-State Restorations, Walters’ AB, Ultimate Collision, Britland AB, and ACME AB deserve credit for always supporting the schools and the students who one day can become technicians. A lot of these guys came from the bottom and have been leading the way in this business, and I can wholeheartedly say their efforts will come to fruition. They have opened their doors to us in the past through field trips, guest speakers and material donations, which are very much appreciated.

Our school counselors and administrators have a big part in enrollment to the program. Giving them the tools and resources really goes a long way in having them speak to the students about the collision industry and the importance of being successful without necessarily having a college degree. I think about the time when I sat down with my school counselor and bargained with him since I thought about leaving the vo-tech school (as it was then called) to go to traditional high school as a young man. He convinced me that if my grades were good, we could apply for a scholarship, which for me was the only way I was going to pay for college. I would be the first in my family to achieve this, and for an immigrant kid with little to no English spoken, many opportunities were available, and I am very thankful for them.

BM: The automotive program is a tiny little part of what we teach here, and we have four other schools in Bergen County, including Paramus, which is a technical school. They do automotive and collision, and they have a lot of kids with classifications like OCD in there, but those kids want to be in there and want to learn the trade. A lot of the kids I get, this is their third choice program, but now I’m stuck with them for four years even though they’re not really interested in learning about collision.

MN: Parents have this misconception that their kids cannot make any money in this business, and we need to correct that. Right now, we’re working with Caliber Collision to get started with their new Technician Apprenticeship Program (TAP), and I believe that will be a big help. It allows us to send seniors to work alongside an A-tech for six to 10 months and get paid as they’re training. Once they finish school, Caliber offers them a job at a shop close to their home to start. We toured their facility, and although we don’t have any seniors this year, a couple of my students are looking forward to participating in the program during their senior years. A few of them are even planning to work for local Caliber shops this summer to clean up and get their feet in the door.

Obviously, there are many ways to attract more students to collision programs, but instructors cannot do it alone; they need industry involvement to demonstrate the need for these young technicians and to correct the general public’s perception of this field. Tune into the June edition of New Jersey Automotive for part 2 of this story to learn what YOU can do to make a difference in the future of vo-tech education!