by Alana Quartuccio
To say the collision repair world has its share of frustrations would be an understatement.
It’s surely no secret the industry has been dealt some bad hands over the years, especially in recent times. Shops already had daily struggles to contend with and then the pandemic came and spewed out more. Once the Covid surge settled down, the average shop suddenly found itself faced with a triple threat: A backlog of work, a growing list of backordered parts and a short-handed staff.
Now with the pandemic behind us, has that backlog of work finally let up? Are any of the related woes of the past few years finally becoming worries OF the past?
According to AASP/NJ Executive Director Charles Byrant, who spends hours talking to shop owners across the Garden State each day, the backlog does seem to be lessening, but it doesn’t necessarily mean things are getting better.
“Shops were unbelievably busy with cars sitting everywhere at the shop. Now, I’m hearing that is no longer the case for many,” Bryant reports, while also noting that parts shortages continue to pervade the industry for numerous repairers.
“Shops can’t get parts in and they don’t want to start a job and then get stuck halfway if they can’t get them in,” he says. “Ordering parts is still a problem.”
Anthony Trama (Bloomfield Auto Body; Bloomfield) still has work booked out about four weeks, but compared to where things were a year ago, he does confirm that business has leveled off a bit.
“We will have to go through a process of confirming parts are coming in, but we are seeing a lot less crazy backorders,” he shares. “I won’t say we’re back to pre-Covid levels, but it’s a lot better than it was.”
Tom Elder (Compact Kars; Clarksburg) believes a few factors come into play when considering whether business has in fact “slowed down” for shops. While he has a number of cars on his lot, he can find room to fit a customer in the next day, unlike some facilities that are still scheduling work weeks out.
“I think the insurance companies are doing a much better job of steering their insureds away from shops like mine who try to get paid for the work we do,” he suggests. “We charge for the labor rate differential – the difference between what we want to be paid versus the unrealistic rate of the insurance company. If the insurance company won’t pay or the customer won’t pay the difference, we won’t fix the car.”
“Everything is more expensive than a year ago,” he adds. “Insurance rates have gone up. Credit card rates are up. Gas prices aren’t coming down. People are not driving their cars for pleasure as much, so there are a lot less accidents.”
And let’s not forget the major influence the weather plays into an influx of business – or not. “I wholeheartedly expected the phone to ring off the hook the day after Memorial Day,” Elder notes. Brad Denning (Dobbs Auto Body; Springfield) shares a similar view when it comes to insurers being the problem. His shop’s backlog has slowed down a bit as they’ve decided to be more selective about who they work with.
“A lot of insurance companies are fighting us so hard because they don’t want to pay,” he shares. “We just don’t have the administrative staff to sit there and fight with them. We started to pick and choose what cars we are bringing in and what cars to not bring in. We will only take cars from insurers who negotiate and will pair our fair rate.”
Autotech Collision Service (Sewell) owner Dean Massimini lends another perspective. He believes the reason he still has a decent backlog of work is due to other shops in his area closing their doors.
“It seems that shops are dropping like flies,” he expresses.
When it comes to parts woes, Massimini finds it’s eased up in most cases.
“It’s sporadic. There can be one car that is just a nightmare but for most others, it goes smoothly.”
Many shops still experiencing an excess of work report that not too much has changed in the area of parts delays and having the manpower to get the work done.
Gil Alfaro (Dawson’s Auto Collision & Repair; Ocean Grove) is still finding himself working overtime to get cars off his lot. He isn’t seeing much of a slowdown with work coming in, and notes that while locating parts is still a problem, it’s not as bad as it was. In terms of availability, Alfaro is finding that most problems lie with American manufacturers. For example, he’s been waiting on a bed for a GMC for eight months – while the vehicle continues to take up space in his lot.
His main problem, however, is finding workers to come on board.
“I can’t get people to work,” he laments. “The technician shortage is still the biggest issue. I’m down two people and I just can’t find qualified people to work.”
With so many challenges to face, most shops are discovering they must adapt in order to make things work.
Elder has been able to fill vacant positions at his shop that two years ago he struggled to fill. He’s had success filling spots with vocational school students who came on board to train; one is starting full time after graduation and another is headed to secondary school for more training.
“The industry didn’t do a good job training help,” he believes. “The vocational schools have just recently started to get better at it. I don’t think that the vocational programs are well enough funded enough to really provide what we would call ‘entry level skills.’”
Massimini agrees. In fact, he recently heard of a vocational school program that is now defunct. “I don’t know if there is an answer,” he says of the shortage. “It’s just a struggle and we feel it. The only thing to do is to bring in young people and train them a little at a time.”
The team at Bloomfield Auto Body have been adjusting and adapting to the way things are in order to make things work. Trama says his shop has been juggling bigger jobs around smaller ones, spacing them out and doing what they can to keep customers happy. New measures have had to be taken to get parts in such as working with dealerships to hunt down parts.
“If a dealership tells us a part is on backorder, we ask them if they can try to locate it via other dealers in the area,” Trama shares. “If it’s a small enough part, not a bumper or hood or any big piece, but something that can fit in a box, it can be sent to us by UPS. Sometimes you need these little small pieces to finalize a job.”
Ultimately it’s about doing what is needed to keep customers happy and get their cars out the door. The auto body shop world is not expected to be worry-free anytime soon, if ever. But this industry always seems to find ways to cope with whatever is dealt its way. In this case, many shops are showing their resiliency as they adapt to changes while doing whatever they can to survive.
Want more? Check out the July 2023 issue of New Jersey Automotive!