A few years ago I did a study comparing the construction materials of a space shuttle to the construction materials of a late-model vehicle, and I found amazing similarities. Both vehicles used high-strength and ultra-high-strength steels, aluminum, magnesium, reinforced plastics, computer-controlled systems, safety restraint systems, navigation systems, communication systems, vehicle wellness monitoring systems, even hybrid propulsion systems. The results of that study led me to the following question: “If I wrecked my space shuttle, who would I want to fix it?”
My first thought was NASA, of course. I want people who were trained by the engineers who built my space shuttle working on my space shuttle, and I want them to follow the written procedures to the letter when completing the repairs. Yet it never fails that when I picture the vehicle being repaired in my head, I still see Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High saying he can fix it because his dad has this “ultimate set of tools” (for the millennials reading this who don’t know who Jeff Spicoli is, I recommend doing your own research). The difference that stands out to me is that I have never heard one of my engineer friends say, “My dad has this ultimate set of tools,” nor have I heard them say “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, I don’t need to read the procedures.”
I tell all of my students that when a customer puts the keys to their car in your hand for you to repair, they have already come to the conclusion that you are going to repair their vehicle correctly. In fact, as customers, there is only one person and one place we visit with the expectation they will get it wrong — our local meteorologist and the drive-thru at McDonalds (and we still go back to both). When we are talking about our vehicles, however, we would never intentionally take it to someone we knew might not repair it correctly or, worse yet, did not have the training or education to repair it at all.
Creating those future "NASA engineers" for the collision repair industry is not an easy task, but it is incredibly rewarding when we can get it right. It just takes time, which is, unfortunately, something our industry has run out of in regard to well-trained technicians. Let me clarify — if I want someone who can fix plastic, tear down and rebuild a vehicle, or fix a dent, I can create that very quickly. If, however, I want someone who can do all those things but also understands the collision repair industry, knows how to read and apply OEM repair procedures, knows how to deal with insurance companies and customers alike, and will ultimately be the person who will continue to help our industry grow and develop in the future, that takes time.
Not only does it take time to train those individuals, but there are a myriad of road blocks we must navigate in order to be successful. Some of these roadblocks are as formidable as the perception the collision repair industry has among the parents of the young men and women who might otherwise consider a career in automotive. We have to contend with the high school counselors pushing students toward four-year colleges and the way our society looks down on men and women who work in the trades (regardless of how much money they make). We also have to understand that the passion for working on cars has been lost on many young people today because vehicles are too complicated to work on in your garage.
If we can get past those roadblocks and actually get young men and women into the trade schools, we then have the obligation to train them correctly and completely. This presents an entirely new set of roadblocks because training these individuals takes vast resources and instructors who are ahead of the technological curve. Public trade schools such as community colleges struggle with funding and individual programs have to compete with each other for every dollar. For-profit trade schools are able to focus on one trade, but are expensive and have to spend time training in areas that will draw students in, such as custom painting and building street rods, in addition to basic collision repair skills, which can seem lack luster in comparison. In short, everyone wants to be the next Chip Foose but no one wants to be the next Scott Kaboos (one of the most talented people working in the collision repair industry today). I am a huge fan of Chip Foose and have a tremendous amount of respect for his talent and the attention he brings to the automotive industry; however, for every one Chip Foose in our industry, we need 10,000 technicians like Scott Kaboos.
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