Recruit & Retain

Nov. 30, 2023
Tips for hiring and keeping auto technicians in your repair shop for the long haul.

In the film Horrible Bosses, three friends, Nick, Dale and Kurt—played by Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis—cook up a plan to murder the bad bosses preventing them from living happy and fulfilled lives. Whether it’s Bateman’s character Nick, whose boss expects him to do nothing but work; Day’s character Dale, whose boss comes on to him creating an uncomfortable work situation; or Sudeikis’s character Kurt, who initially likes his job until his boss dies and the boss’s son makes his job hell, difficult workplaces are a reality in every industry—even in automotive repair. And in the midst of one of the largest labor shortages witnessed in the industry, as a shop owner, you want to ensure that your environment is not only attractive to prospective hires but conducive to growth, tenure and fulfillment—all of which start at the top. 

According to the 2023 Ratchet+Wrench Industry Survey Report, presented by AutoZone and Mobil 1, 86% of technicians have held their jobs for three or more years while 14% have left their jobs within the first two years. In another survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, 84% of people who quit their jobs cited poorly trained managers as their reason for leaving the job.  

“People don't quit jobs, and they don't quit organizations,” Ryan Hillenbrand, founder of Urb’s Garage says. “People quit people. So, if you don't have good people there, you're not going to be able to retain anybody anyway.” 

Hillenbrand, who has four shops in the greater Cincinnati area, says when it comes to hiring technicians, he looks for accountable people. He says those hires need to take extreme ownership of the position. For Hillenbrand, having the right people factors into his long-game strategy of continuous shop growth, and for that to be possible, he needs team members who have a winning attitude and know how to execute within their roles. 

“I will take a great culture guy over a technician who has a bad attitude (and who) turns 70 hours a week any day. I don't care how well you perform. If you're not good, if you're not a nice person, I'm not going to hire you in any way, shape or form,” Hillenbrand says. 

Retention Begins with Proper Vetting 

To ensure he’s got the right candidate coming into the shop, he vets his pipeline through a hiring process that begins with a questionnaire. This test helps Hillenbrand to determine if the candidate checks all the boxes. Hillenbrand says his method isn’t anything out of the ordinary, but it does help him to determine whether they fit into the culture of the shop and offers him a snapshot of their attitude and mental posture. The survey asks candidates to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 various jobs within the shop and their comfort level with them. Next, he asks candidates for references from their past coworkers instead of their past bosses. He says this method of hiring can produce authentic character references since the people they’ll list have worked closely with the candidate most often. 

 “I ask them for two references of the best technicians they ever worked with and two references with the best advisors they ever worked with. I don't want to talk to their boss. I only talk to the people that they’ve worked with every day. The secret to that is those people are going to tell you what you need to know about this person who’s coming in,” Hillenbrand says.  

While part of the evaluation equation is attracting technicians to the shop, the other side of the coin is having an attractive shop to bring them into in the first place. Hillenbrand says beyond pay scale, shop owners need to prove they’re capable of making the revenue necessary to keep techs busy. 

“You've got to show them that they have plenty of work, you know? You got to have proof of concept within your business to be able to show the best people that they're going to be working at a place that can support them being the best,” Hillenbrand says. 

Hillenbrand says in a perfect world a shop should look to hiring advisors and technicians together so that they can develop chemistry. 

“If had to do it all over again, (the) first thing I would do is hire a great salesperson. A great salesperson gives you the opportunity to be able to make revenue, and then I would hire a great technician. I would try to hire both of them simultaneously,” Hillenbrand says. 

Be a Shop with Purpose 

In today’s auto repair shop, baby boomers, Gen Xers, millennials and Gen Z technicians all turn wrenches elbow to elbow, and shop owners need to understand the differences in how each approaches work and what each needs, even down to why they come to work in the first place. 

“You've got all kinds of different personalities and all kinds of different emotions that go along with that,” Hillenbrand says. “You used to just be able to have a one-size-fits-all program and that's not really the case anymore. There are different things that people need to feel secure. You got to take an individualized approach for each employee.”  

He adds that auto repair shops need to provide technicians with a sense of purpose in today's market. It’s not about hiring to fill a bay with a warm body, it’s about finding employees who want a career and have a sense of purpose, and who want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Hillenbrand likens it to the parable of the bricklayer wherein a passerby asks three different bricklayers what they’re doing and garners three different responses—‘I’m laying bricks’, ‘I’m building a church,’ ‘I’m building a House of God’—each revealing the heart behind their purpose for working. 

“They're all three doing the exact same job. One of them sees it as collecting a paycheck. The other one sees it as a career; he's doing something that's fulfilling to him. And the other one sees it as a calling; he's doing what he was made to,” Hillenbrand says. “So, we don't want to hire people just to have a job … We want guys who are making this into a career and who have found that being in auto repair is their calling; guys who take pride in their work. Your best performers are going to be searching for something more.” 

Observe, Listen, Communicate 

Hillenbrand says everything comes back to culture and connection. There's no retention without it. Shop owners should set this standard through weekly meetings. Hillenbrand’s are called board meetings, a place to air the laundry and get everyone on the same sheet of music. 

“We have a board meeting every morning. It's not training, it's a meeting. It's talking about all the good stuff we got going on. It’s pumping people up and giving them props. It's correcting some actions that we need to corrected,” Hillenbrand says. 

He urges shop owners to be active listeners in meetings and to keep their fingers on the pulse of the shop. It’s why the meetings are necessary. Hillenbrand likens the banter within the board meetings to a situation faced by fictional soccer coach Ted Lasso. In one episode, Lasso installs new showerheads in the locker room after disgruntled star aging player Roy Kent complains about low water pressure. That tiny change helped him see Lasso differently. Hilbrand says the lesson for shop owners is to focus on hearing their people out, listening for the things that matter to them no matter how trivial, and if they’re able to resolve it, do it because it's important to their people.  

“What happens is these guys can get their problems out and we can say, ‘Hey, I see you, I affirm you, we're going to fix this.’ We have a ‘wants and needs’ board that has a side for when the guys want stuff for the shop and a side for when we need stuff for the shop. If it's a need, it gets done immediately,” Hillenbrand says. 

Make Your Intentions Crystal Clear 

Mike Allen of Carfix, who has shops in and around Raleigh, North Carolina, says the hiring process must be transparent. When reaching out to candidates, he’s upfront about his expectations from publishing wages with job descriptions to showcasing his shop’s culture through videos on his website. All of this is to put his cards down on the table and evoke a sense of trust between the shop owner and a potential technician. 

“We have technicians, service advisors and employees’ spouses interviewed on video on our website on the careers page so (candidates) can see the people that are working in the organization,” Allen says. 

Once he identifies a candidate who fits, Allen wastes no time pursuing them. He contacts the person and looks to meet, typically off-site, for a meal within 12 hours. Those meetings allow Allen to get a snapshot of who he’s considering for the job. If he likes the candidate, he makes an offer on the spot.  

“When we have that face-to-face contact, I'm going to have a complete hiring packet with me and a folder that has details of all of our benefits. We've created this one-sheet of the answers to all the questions that the spouse asks that the applicant always forgets to ask. So, we want to get ahead of all those questions to compress that timeline and frankly, if after we've broken bread and I'm determined that I'm interested in having this person in our company, I'm going to be prepared to make them a job offer immediately,” Allen says.  

Allen says when a candidate accepts his offer, he sweetens the pot by offering to move their toolbox within 24 hours and giving them a significant bonus to start right away. He says that level of responsiveness and eagerness is at the backbone of his culture. And while he shrugs off the idea of shops being like a family, he embraces relationships in the workplace and wants his team to be closely knit. 

“I would bend over backward and do whatever I can to help my people, but I'm not their son, they're not my dad. Harsh statements, but that has revolutionized our ability to hire effectively and efficiently. Pay really well, be really honest, be really transparent and get them to come in right now,” Allen says. 

Be Interested in Your People 

He asserts that to retain people, you must ensure they feel heard and validated. Allen says shop owners should engage in work and personal communication to show attentiveness and openness to convey that they care. He also says to allow them to talk about their goals and the progress they’re making and ask how you can help. On top of that, be prepared to invest in the team collectively and individually. Two things Allen does for his employees are pay for them to pursue special interests and honor tenured employees with vacation perks. 

“We do at least 40 hours of paid training for every position every year. After two years of completing 40 hours of training, we have a variety of different options for non-job-specific training. Let's say they want to go to the Dale Carnegie course on human communication or maybe they want to get CPR certified, they can come to me and I'm open to that,” Allen says.  

“And every five years, on your five-year anniversary, we give you an extra five days of vacation and $5,000 to pay for airfare or tickets or rentals to be used for a vacation … It’s been fun over the years watching people (who) maybe never would go on a trip of that nature get to go do things that they might have never gotten to do before.” 

Beyond doing his due diligence in taking care of his team and hiring new team members, Allen says his primary retention strategy begins by promoting from within. One example he cited was his COO, Tyson, who came up through the ranks from technician to shop manager to overseeing all of the Carfix stores. Allen says Tyson showed an aptitude to grow and learn, a quality Allen admires and encourages. 

“He had the interest. He was one of those who was highly skilled technically but realized that maybe there was a gap in his communication skills, and he sought out that training. We sent him to the Dale Carnegie class, an eight-week class, and it revolutionized the way that he interacted with people in his life and turned him into a leader. People follow him happily because he knows how to communicate and lead,” Allen says. 

Joelle Pollak: “It's Like Matchmaking. We Want to Find the Right Candidate for That Specific Shop.” 

Joelle Pollak, co-founder of Promotive, an automotive recruitment agency that connects automotive staff with shops, spoke to Ratchet+Wrench about the work her company does in pairing auto repair shops with qualified auto technicians. 

Ratchet+Wrench: How are you finding and vetting the candidates and how selective is your approach? 

Joelle Pollak: We're finding them from job boards, from our passive outreach, from paid advertising, from technical school. It depends on what the shops are looking for. Our recruiters reviewed over 5,100 resumes out of those 5,100 resumes, we pre-screened 251. We threw out 4,800 resumes because they weren't what our shops were looking for. That's where we're spending a lot of time (since) a lot of shop owners don't have time to qualify these candidates. Out of those 251, we have submitted 124 to our shop so far, and we're working with about 60 shops across the country.  

R+W: How do you qualify the applicants? 

JP: There’s a standard list of questions (our team is) looking at. We’re not just asking what their experiences are, but we're diving, talking to them two, three, four times. We're asking why (applicants) are looking to leave their current shop. What type of culture are they looking for? We check for any red flags. We ask them what scan tools they're using. How many hours are they flagging? About any specific certifications. What makes and models have they worked on? What compensation are they looking for? What kind of person are they and what are they looking for? So, we're thoroughly communicating and vetting both the shop and the candidates. Our account manager plays the middle man or middle woman and schedules the interview, we write the job descriptions, write the offer letter, extend the offer and negotiate on the shop’s behalf. 

R+W: How quickly are you placing talent into shops? 

JP: We're averaging right around the 30-, 35-day mark for placement. We've made placements in days and weeks. In some markets, we thought it would take longer, but we've been surprised and have been able to deliver A (techs), B techs, general service techs and service advisors within a couple of weeks. 

R+W: Why is retention an all-hands-on-deck effort? 

JP: Oh, I think it's important: 1) for the shop owner and then 2) for our industry, right? We’re all talking about this technician shortage and when I was with NAPA, we rolled out an apprentice program, ASE has as their apprentice and mentor program and ATI has their apprentice program, so everyone's working towards getting people more technicians. In the meantime, retention is just as important. We have these skilled technicians and service advisors out there today and if they're not getting taken care of, or they don't see career opportunities or advancement or training opportunities, they're leaving our industry and the shortage is becoming even more real. So, we have to educate the existing employees in this industry … make sure shop owners are providing the right tools and resources to train them and retain them. Culture is everything. Not every technician is looking for a couple more bucks and everyone's different, but we're in the people business and sometimes money motivates somebody, and then other times it's the training or the culture. 

About the Author

Chris Jones | Editor

Chris Jones is the editor of Ratchet+Wrench magazine and host of its companion podcast, Ratchet+Wrench Radio, a weekly show featuring automotive professionals across the auto care landscape.

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