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Clearing the Path

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One of the biggest complaints Phil White regularly hears from fellow shop owners is the lack of available, qualified technicians.

Whether it’s the steady demise of high school automotive programs, a nationwide emphasis on four-year college degrees, or simply a waning interest in mechanical careers, it’s becoming more and more difficult for shops to find qualified workers.

“Our industry tends to have a negative perception; a lot of people don’t trust us,” says White, a 30-year industry veteran and Colorado shop owner. “It takes a lot to change customers’ minds about that, and it can take a lot to change a would-be technician’s mind about that, too.”

It starts, White says, with education. And it comes in three stages: encouraging young people to enter the industry, preparing them for careers in auto repair, and continuing their learning once in the shop.

Ratchet+Wrench profiled three shop owners dedicated to continual learning. Each shared their thoughts on the industry’s education system and what everyone can do to make the future of the auto service industry a little less murky.

Something New: Peaking Interest

There’s nothing easy about working in the auto repair industry.

Phil White knows that fact all too well. So, standing face-to-face with an eighth-grader at the Greeley (Colo.) Career Day in April, White tries not to think about the stifling conditions in some shops during the summer months; he tries not to think of the feeling of a warm engine dripping snow melt onto your face while doing an oil change in January; or the heavy, difficult daily workloads that leave technicians physically exhausted by the end of a work day.

Instead, he focuses on the question posed by this bright-eyed teenager: Why would I want to work in the auto industry?

“I give each kid that asks the same answer, and it’s the same reason I love doing what I’m doing: Every day, there’s something new,” he says. “Each day, we have a new problem to solve, a new challenge. It keeps you fresh; it keeps you motivated. If you enjoy a challenge, then this is the industry for you.”

White, who’s owned Phil’s Pro Auto Service in Greeley for nearly 30 years, is worried that not enough kids see it that way. College, college, college—that’s what students hear every day from teachers and counselors, White says, and while that’s certainly a good goal, he fears that it gives auto repair the perception of a collection of dropouts and flunkies; not to mention, it completely ignores the upside of what is now a very technologically advanced industry with plenty of potential for successful, sustained careers.

It’s no secret that attendance at trade schools is down. Earlier this year, the Universal Technical Institute, one of the nation’s largest providers of automotive technical training, reported that student enrollment was down by nearly 12 percent in the second quarter of 2013, continuing a nationwide trend.

“The industry’s changing—it changes every day—but perception hasn’t,” he says. “We want the best and the brightest in our industry. We want—we need—good people in our industry. We need that image to change to do this.”

It’s time for something new, White says.

Commitment to Change

White opened his shop in a three-bay gas station in 1985, snatching up the location after the previous owner went bankrupt. His sustained success—and growth—over the years, he says, comes from one focus: “We stay on top of

“If you’re always educating yourself and always improving, then you’re preparing to solve problems before they happen,” he says.

That’s his mentality with helping shape the next generation of industry professionals. It’s also why he’s been involved with local schools—from elementary to college—his entire career. He serves as an advisor with Aims Community College’s automotive department in Greeley, and has had a number of students shadow technicians in his shop and do some work in unofficial internships.

White was also one of the first businesses signed on for the area’s career fair. It started small, but now includes every middle school in the county.

“My personal opinion is that if I can do anything to educate anyone in the world about our industry, I think it helps the industry as a whole,” he says. “That’s the standpoint I run my shop on.”

The Benefits of Giving Back

Working with local schools doesn’t just help the students and the automotive programs, White says. There are also several direct benefits for your shop.

Recruiting. Being involved at local trade schools gives owners access to students, and an inside track in recruiting top, young talent to your shop.

Information. Trade schools pride themselves at staying current with industry repair trends. White says having that connection can help in finding answers to difficult issues in the shop.

Equipment trends. Seeing what schools use in their classrooms—and making recommendations to the schools—helps to evaluate the level of technology in your own shop. It gives an easy measuring stick (or reminder) as to what your shop needs.

Self Reflection. Giving advice, whether to a student or to an instructor, can cause you to evaluate the way you do things. An introspective mentality is always useful in finding ways to improve.

Gaining Early Opportunity

Success in the automotive industry is all about building successful relationships. That’s the mentality Nick Sallas has always stood by with his business, the two-location Sallas Auto Repair in Kansas City, Mo., and Overland Park, Kan.

But, Sallas says, a lot of industry people view that concept backward.

“People instantly think about customers—building relationships with customers,” he says. “That’s important, but the most important relationships a shop needs to build are with its employees.”

Simply put: If a shop doesn’t focus on its staff, those employees will not be able to effectively serve customers. And those relationships will then suffer.

“Training is the key,” Sallas says. “You have to invest in your staff and in your people to build that relationship. If you have well-trained employees, your business is going to be successful.”

His commitment to employees is one of the reasons he has extremely low turnover, and it’s one of the ways he’s been able to grow his business, which he started 19 years ago with a $6,000 loan and a two-bay building. But it’s also one of the reasons that Sallas is able to attract and develop young technicians.

Five years ago, Sallas started an internship program at his shop, allowing students at local tech schools to gain experience (and some money to cut the cost of classes) while finishing up their programs.

Building Blocks

It’s a bit of a Catch 22: Shops won’t hire technicians without experience, and technicians can’t gain experience without getting in a shop. It discourages those who would otherwise pursue a career in the industry, and it leaves many shops scrambling for new blood in its staff.

SHOP ACCESS: Nick Sallas developed an internship program at his shops for local students. Photo by Grant Meeks

This is where Sallas’ program comes in.

“By giving these kids a chance to get in the shop, you’re letting them get hands-on experience, and you’re getting the chance to try them out for your shop in the future,” he says.
Initiating a program isn’t overly difficult, Sallas says. There are a few things to consider, though:

Candidate selection. Sallas serves on advisory boards for two local Kansas City–area, college-level automotive programs. He uses this connection to get recommendations for candidates.

Staff buy-in. Any intern is going to need guidance from the more experienced technicians around them. That means Sallas’ staff needs to be willing to help. One way he gets that buy-in is to have his technicians help with the interview process. Sallas never brings on an intern without having at least three other staff members interview them and approve.

Pay. To get optimum effort from the intern, you need to offer incentive. Sallas pays them anywhere between $8.50 and $12.50 per hour depending on experience.

Duration of internship. The internship should last long enough for the student to get a good feel for the industry, and for you to get a good feel for the student’s ability and dedication to the profession.

Work mix. Mostly, the interns do smaller tasks around the shop—oil changes, alignments, etc. But, Sallas says to make sure they get to try out the things they are learning in school. They need the opportunity to put their classwork to use.

Shop benefit. Sallas wants his shop to have an upside to the program as well. That’s why, if he has a good candidate, he will set it up as a pathway to a job. “We make an agreement with them that, since we’re helping them get through school, then we want them to commit with us,” he says. He will then have them sign a contract to work at his shop for two years after graduating.

“The idea is to be building a foundation, for them and for the shop,” he says. “We need new people in the industry, and we need new people in our shops. We have to be there to initiate that.”

Continuing the Momentum

Tyler Ellenson had never worked in a repair facility until he opened his own, Tyler’s Automotive, 18 years ago in Tigard, Ore. He didn’t have the advanced training the average technician-turned-owner might, and he didn’t have any experience in how the average shop was run—or should be run.

“I liked the challenge of it, and I just enjoyed helping customers,” he says. “It felt more like a hobby than a business. I just had to learn as I went.”

Education was the key, he says, to turning his shop into a real business. And his philosophy for choosing between training options was pretty simple: If it came across his desk, he signed up.

“Every opportunity there was to figure out how things worked, I would do it, whether it was a class, a seminar, a workshop,” he says. “Every dime I was making at the shop was going into my equipment purchases and my training.”

Fast-forward 10 years, and Ellenson had a second shop. Two years later, he had a third. Today, Ellenson runs a $2.6-million-a-year operation alongside his wife, Margaret.

“If you don’t understand how something works, then you can’t understand how to fix it or make it better,” he says, referring to his business as much as the cars it works on. “There’s always a learning curve, and there’s always some new changes coming up. You need to stay on top of it.”

And that’s his fear for many in the industry. Initial training for technicians—that is, technical or trade school education and various certification programs—give shop staff the basic fundamentals to gain employment. One challenge in the industry, Ellenson says, is making sure you’re continuing that education in order to keep talented people interested, focused and, most importantly, qualified to do quality work.

ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING: When Tyler Ellenson started his shop, he jumped at every training and education opportunity that came across his desk. Now, he encourages his staff to do the same. Photo by Timothy Denison

“You can’t just sit back and hope they’re going to improve simply from experience on the job,” he says. “That’s not what’s best for your business, and it’s not what’s going to be best for their careers.”

An Important Investment

Training isn’t cheap. And when you throw in the dollars and cents that come out of your shop’s loss in production, Ellenson says, it adds up pretty quickly.

“But if you’re complaining about paying for training, then you’re in the wrong industry,” he says. “Everything changes so quickly in our industry—vehicles, technology. You need to make the investments up front so it doesn’t cost you at the end.”

Ellenson requires each staff member to complete 20 hours of training each year on top of any basic certification requirements. He pays for it all, and has the same “across-my-desk” policy as he did with himself in his early days.

“You need to make it part of your regular budget,” he says. “I try to have an average of 1.5 percent of my yearly budget go to training. It’s like owning a vehicle, you have to account for the cost of gas and maintenance and everything else that keeps it running.”

Ellenson has his staff take a wide variety of courses and seminars, from technical instruction to leadership development. He understands that not everyone is going to learn in the same way and get the same things out of courses that their co-workers might. Everyone has different learning styles, and everyone has different interests.

“I don’t care how good you are or how many years you’ve been doing this, if you go to one of these classes and you can get one or two things out of it, it’s worth the time,” he says. “You need to make this investment. It’s not an option. It’s how you keep good people, and it’s how good people get better.”

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