MSO tackles tech shortage with in-house training and marketing
Beaverton, Ore.—The need for initial and ongoing training in collision repair shops has perhaps never been greater. Collision Repair Education Foundation figures show that of the 21,500 technicians who leave the industry nationwide each year, only about 10,000 training program graduates are available to replace them.
Ron Reichen, who is also past chairman of the Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS), has owned Precision Body & Paint since 1975, with locations in Beaverton, Bend, and Gresham, Ore. Combined, the three shops employ about 100 people, with annual gross sales of about $14 million. But they currently have a work backlog of two and a half months.
“The technician shortage is what’s holding us back,” he said. “We would like to have a three to four-week backlog, and we could do 25 percent more in sales if we simply had technicians to do the work.”
But with an area unemployment rate of only 2.18 percent, Reichen said he competes with other in-demand skilled professions, such as plumbers and electricians. And because his business model includes 31 OEM-certified repair programs using state-of-the-art equipment, with no DRPs, his technicians’ training needs are even greater, with notables such as repairing 30 to 50 Teslas per month and being the only Audi-certified facility in Oregon.
So for more than a dozen years, Precision has helped meet the need for technicians by training them in-house. But this is not the stereotypical on-the-job training, in which an apprentice is given menial tasks such as sweeping the floor, with little chance of them progressing into a journeyman technician. Precision technicians work as part of a production team, an arrangement that works well for a training program, Reichen said, because a trainee is paired with a master technician.
“We have ongoing weekly and monthly evaluations,” he said, “and we hold the master tech responsible for the progress of what we call the ‘C tech.’”
A C tech’s background varies from a basic high school mechanical shop program to an associate’s degree from a community college, and others come from the state penitentiary’s trade program, he said. Students at Portland Community College’s Cascade Campus in its Auto Collision Repair program spend 300 hours in a shop as part of the cooperative education requirement, and at Precision, the master technician serves as instructor.
“We also take people who just have some aptitude and a good attitude, whether they’re young people or somebody who may be retraining due to some form of disability or something like that. We’re always interested in talking to anybody who has the desire to do the skills we offer.”
Men and women are trained through the program for every facet of the organization, including blueprinting, parts, production, or refinishing, with most employees who’ve gone through the program being successful and remaining with the company a long time.
“Some of them have never worked anyplace else. They’ve come out of school and worked for us for 13, 14, 15 years,” he said. “We bring some people in from Europe, and we have two Iraqis, one guy from the Czech Republic, several from Laos, and we’re actually working to relocate some people from Puerto Rico because of the devastation there. We’ll see if we can get some technicians back on their feet who may have lost everything.”
Not all master technicians are necessarily good supervisors or trainers or are interested in those roles, Reichen said, so some master technicians supervise two trainees, and some have none.
The program includes a tiered pay structure in which the entry-level technician is tested to see what his or her skill level is, followed by pairing the trainee with an A tech. For the first 90 days, the company pays all of the trainee’s wages, and the commissioned A tech benefits from the trainee’s work while he or she is being trained. For the next 90 days, the company pays half of the wages and the A tech contributes half from his or her commission. At the six-month point, the trainee is evaluated.
“For the majority of them, at that point we cut the cord, and the master tech is paying all of the mid-tech’s wages,” he said. “But we have extended it in the aluminum program, because the training level is so much greater.”
Some trainees find they would rather paint than be a body technician, as an example, so management moves them to where they’re best suited. Reichen likens it to coaching a football team: “‘I think you should be hiking the ball instead of catching the ball.’”
After usually a year or two of working with the master technician, the trainee will go on to advanced factory schools. Each team is specialized and will focus on no more than three factory certifications, Reichen said.
The head of the shop’s blueprinting department is also an I-CAR instructor, including for aluminum and steel certifications, so he can travel to each location to perform those. The Beaverton facility has a training classroom that can accommodate up to 80 people, Reichen said.
“And for our I-CAR classes, we have small training centers in the other two locations. When he teaches a class, he can do a Webinar so our other locations can benefit from the classes, as well.”