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California shop expands training, recruitment efforts with auto summer camp

Owner hopes industry can make concerted effort to address technician shortages
Thursday, May 18, 2017 - 07:00
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Shops across the country are struggling with technician recruitment. Fewer new techs are entering the workforce, and existing technicians are often poached by larger shops or consolidators offering big signing and recruitment bonuses.

A number of shops and MSOs have launched training programs to bring new blood into the technician pool but most of these efforts only benefit one particular company. The technician shortage is a systemic problem that will require a concerted effort from the entire industry.

Gustafson Brothers, a mechanical and collision repair shop in Huntington Beach, Calif., has initiated some innovative training programs to expand its own technician pool while also increasing interest in autobody repair regionally. Owner John Gustafson thinks his own company’s approach could provide a template for regional and national industry associations to tackle the staffing issue.

Gustafson is an I-CAR instructor, as well as a Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR) certified instructor, continuing education insurance instructor, and ASE Master Technician. For the first time this summer, his shop will host an “Intro to Auto Summer Boot Camp” program for teenagers 16 years old and older.

Each of the two four-week session costs $400. The company is marketing the camp via local high schools and job fairs, as well through its online mailing list and social media.

“Auto shop in high school is a lost art,” Gustafson says. “We’re providing an introduction to automotive so young people can get exposed to what we consider a STEM career in auto.”

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The camp will provide the basics of how cars are manufactured and purchased, as well as an introduction to how cars work, maintenance, and autobody repair. All sections include hands-on training. Gustafson and other certified instructors will lead the training.

While Gustafson says he got the initial idea for the camp four years ago, it took some time before the shop could offer the courses to the general public. The training center can accommodate up to 20 students for each session, but for the first camp Gustafson says they are targeting a class of 12 students.

Gustafson Brothers has already established itself as a leader when it comes to education. The company has its own 2,500-square-foot training center that offers I-CAR training, as well as insurance agent training and other courses.

In addition to the boot camp, the company has created a career path training program that can move new technicians from entry-level status to master technician over the course of seven years. The program is designed to both help get new technicians trained and help existing employees advance their careers.

The company has offered this training on the mechanical side for four years, and has just introduced an autobody component. “We have a ten-week course that starts in June for three technicians at a time,” Gustafson says. “We run them through a number of I-CAR classes. These are people we have recited that had mechanical aptitude, but are not current autobody technicians. We think we can bring new people in.”

He says that the technician shortage is so acute in California that some large MSOs and consolidators are offering head-hunting fees of $3,500 to as much as $5,000 to poach technicians from other shops.

Gustafson hopes to be able to boost the pool of available talent for all of the shops in his market area. “We can’t place all the students we teach, so in our own small way we’re sort of in the recruiting business by accident,” Gustafson says. What he hopes can happen is that there can be a central pool of available talent, at least at the regional level, for shops that are looking for technicians.

“I’ve spoken to the Automotive Service Councils of California about it,” Gustafson says. “What I’ve het to find is anyone that has taken enough action to make something work.”

What Gustafson envisions is something akin to old-fashioned union halls that used to help match members to available jobs. “If there was a co-op or pool of technicians, and you knew their skills and could verify them, and have ongoing training so they can move up, then I think we can revive this industry,” Gustafson says.

If the programs are successful, he hopes he can pitch the idea to local and national associations, as well as paint and tool suppliers. “We really need to get state and national associations to provide leadership and help create this central co-op, which could be universal across the country,” Gustafson says. “The technician shortage isn’t going to go away on its own.”

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