A Glimpse into Career and Technical Education with Texas Collision Instructors (Part 2)

by Chasidy Rae Sisk

Shops need more talented young people to come work in the field, but recent years have seen a significant decrease in the number of students interested in pursuing a collision career. What’s happening to cause this, and how can YOU make a difference in the industry’s future by getting involved with the next generation?

Texas Automotive began tackling this touchy topic last month (available here) by talking to four Lone Star collision instructors: Raven Hartkopf (Collin College; Allen), Keith Schieffer (Universal Technical Institute; Houston), Jannifer Stimmel (Texas State Technical College; Waco) and Jeff Wilson (Kingwood Park High School; Kingwood).

They’ve already explained some of the changes they’ve seen and recruitment challenges they face, but now they share even more important information with the industry: why they need you to get involved and how you can do it as effectively as possible in a way that benefits your business and your industry now and in the future.

Texas Automotive: What hurdles are you facing as a collision instructor?

Raven Hartkopf: We are facing quite a few hurdles…For starters, we are close to running out of space in our labs, especially now that we have more than one class being taught at one time. We have one designated classroom, which has caused us to create makeshift classrooms in our metal and paint labs. Equipment is a slight hurdle for us because we have larger cohorts than we’ve seen in the past, and we ideally want to have two students per piece of equipment (such as welders). This is creating a domino effect for us because we don’t have an adequate amount of power to supply everything we need. The last hurdle we face is the need for additional instructors. With the increase in students, we need the support of adjunct professors to lessen the load on our full-time faculty. With that being said, there are qualifications that our institution requires that are hard to find in the industry. We require an associate’s degree and a master-level ASE certification in collision, but even some of the best, most experienced technicians in the field don’t have a degree.

Keith Schieffer: A big challenge for many schools is the lack of current curriculum or outdated curriculum, which leads to outdated teaching methods and outdated vehicles, equipment and materials. We are almost at the quarter century mark, and some schools are still using curriculum from the last century. If an active, knowledgeable advisory committee looks further than the meeting room and asks the right questions, it is not difficult to recognize if the instructors are up to date and working with current technology within the curriculum. If these issues are brought forward and become part of the meeting itself, most accredited schools must heed the advice of the advisory committee. Unfortunately, many advisory committee meetings are held with the administrative side of the school, who simply tell the committee members what a great job they are doing. I believe that the advisory committee needs to look a little deeper and ask some of the tougher questions. Look at the curriculum, training aids, vehicles, instructor training and qualifications. How are the students being trained, and what results are the students achieving? The collision industry is starving for qualified entry-level technicians, and I believe that the correct results can – and should – be expected from the education industry.

Jannifer Stimmel: We struggle with our budget a lot. We need newer vehicles for students to learn on, and we also need a rotating supply of hardware and tools because learning students tend to break stuff, and we don’t have the budget to replace it. We’re always looking for new measuring systems and updated equipment, and our collision program appreciates anything that the local industry is willing to donate to help us better educate our students.

Jeff Wilson: Each instructor faces different hurdles, but it doesn’t inhibit my ability to teach cognitive skills, though in this trade, the important learning really begins and ends with psycho-motor skills which are difficult to teach without the necessary materials. Our budget is minimal, and I do my best to spread that out…but I really couldn’t do what I do without the abundance of help I receive from the Collision Repair Education Foundation (CREF) and our local I-CAR Committee. I make one phone call, and they show up with the toner, tools, spray guns, racks and whatever else is needed to better prepare my students for graduation. Those provisions allow students to mess up so they can learn, and because they’re able to learn so much throughout their four-year tenure at the school, my graduates receive their I-CAR certification in non-structural repair and refinishing. Though I do receive a budget from the district, I can’t stress enough how important it’s been to have help from the Houston I-CAR Committee, along with CREF, for keeping my courses at a tier one program to better prepare my students after they graduate. We also host the Houston area CREF career fair each year and plan to continue as long as possible.

TXA: 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?

RH: Body shops can get involved by being a part of local schools’ advisory committees. Auto body programs usually have a committee that meets once or twice a year. This is imperative for programs to flourish because we lean on body shops to give us insight into what they’re seeing, whether it’s new repair processes or technology. If there’s an I-CAR committee in your area, I recommend partnering with them to help local schools because they can also be a liaison for support. They can help facilitate student tours in your shop, donations and other activities that link shops with students.

The industry’s involvement impacts student morale because it gives legitimacy to the program. Without visible support from shops, it may create the perception that the industry does not back the school’s program. One of the most valuable resources we can give our students is the ability to network and meet those in the industry. As most people can agree, it’s a small world in the collision field, and networking is important for students to take their first steps into the industry. Students enjoy field trips and visits from technicians and shop managers. Honestly, they probably get tired of hearing me talk every day, so it’s nice to have someone else share with them for a change.

KS: This lines up directly with the need for active advisory committees. Programs cannot make changes or get updates without an advisory committee’s say-so. The school has to listen to the committee’s advice within a certain amount of time; if they insist on updated equipment or newer cars, it’s up to the school to get it done. Advisory committees have the power to get things done, but in order to be valuable, they need to get involved at a higher level. I’ve attended these meetings where an administrator stands on their soapbox and talks about how good the school is doing. They make it sound wonderful, and the advisory committee believes them…

Meanwhile, we’re working with a 20-year-old curriculum that isn’t in line with where the industry needs these students to be. If instructors are training students on old junk cars, using outdated tools and equipment, that program is not producing qualified talent for our industry. Advisory committees need to be trained to look for the weak spots and ask the tough questions instead of just taking the word of someone trying to sell them on the idea that things are good enough so they don’t have to invest more in the program. Pull the covers back to see what lies underneath by being prepared with questions about the current equipment and materials, the training aids and the curriculum. Ask about co-op programs, mentoring, job shadowing, and request statistics on the school’s success rates in terms of graduation placement. And seek information on the qualifications and credentials of the instruction staff to find out what makes them good teachers because you’re never going to graduate a student who is more educated than their instructors are.

JS: We need the industry to get involved on our advisory boards and to help supply the tools, equipment and materials needed to teach these students. State schools don’t have the same budgets as big private schools since we don’t charge high tuition, so it’d be nice if local industry businesses contributed parts and vehicles for the kids to work on. The industry complains a lot that these students don’t know anything, but they aren’t willing to help us get things updated; they’re not willing to do anything to fix the problems. Our advisory board determines what gets put into our curriculum…we can’t update it without their feedback! But that means they actually have to participate since we can’t change anything if y’all are not opening your mouths to help us fight for what we need. It’s also helpful when shops visit our classes. Students ask about shops constantly, and we used to have local industry professionals come talk to them, but that hasn’t happened much since COVID. I’d love to see more of that return.

JW: I suggest recruiting as many local area collision and refinishing shops to become part of the district’s advisory committee and join the area I-CAR committee. Reach out to other area districts that offer the collision program and begin a network of collaboration to enable help for one another to better prepare students once they graduate and go into the workforce. A lot of industry professionals don’t have time to be part of local advisory committees, but if the industry does not invest in the local schools, those programs will not thrive. If you want to make sure schools are replacing your retiring workers with good entry-level technicians, you need to get involved. We’re lucky to have a strong advisory committee made up of local area businesses that believe in what I believe in: getting these students into the industry and helping them learn what they need to know to be successful after graduation. If it wasn’t for the advisory board, we wouldn’t know what they want entry-level technicians to learn. They tell me what expectations they have for a new technician, and then I train my students to be able to enter a shop and be a useful part of their team.

One local shop has welcomed several of our younger students to come in after school to get some more hands-on experience, and by donating their time to do a sort of show-and-tell, they are helping to get those kids prepared for next year’s practicum. We also have companies come in to do demonstrations on products, tools and equipment to explain how these things work and why they were developed. Students learn things like why they would repair a plastic bumper instead of replacing it. When industry professionals offer demonstrations, students learn tricks and trades that I don’t teach, and it also helps the students pay better attention to my lessons; when they hear it from the people actually performing the work every day, it reinforces what I’m teaching them every day.

So, when’s the last time you got involved with your local vocational and technical school? Are you asking the right questions and digging deep enough to understand what’s really happening so that you can truly make a difference? Are you offering apprenticeships to local students? If you’re not doing anything except complaining about the lack of qualified help, you’re part of the problem! Become part of the solution by reaching out to your local vo-tech instructor(s) and asking a simple question: How can I get involved to ensure that our industry has a future supply of qualified workers? It’s likely a lot simpler than you’d think…and it pays in real help for your shop!

Stay tuned for the final installment in this series as our instructors discuss how the public’s perception of collision repair may be impacting the industry’s ability to attract new talent. 

Want more? Check out the June 2023 issue of Texas Automotive!