When it comes to careers, kids have choices. But they do not always have the information they need to make the best choice. Enlightening them could make a difference and help the collision repair industry.
by Eli Greenbaum
We are all very aware of the current—and possibly ongoing—shortage of technicians. Vocational schools and their collision repair industry partners create hosts of programs to train tomorrow’s technicians, but how can we, as an industry, steer young people, students, and others, to consider collision repair as a smart and viable career choice?
To answer that question, we sought out industry experts—the people who work every day to develop and bring talent into collision centres across Canada. They consistently pointed to three key persuasive factors: good pay, job satisfaction, and job security.
Presenting the Choices
Kevin Blecic, a career coordinator for the Greater Victoria (B.C.) School District’s trades program, interacts with high school students reviewing what the skilled trades—including collision repair—offer as career opportunities. According to Blecic, collision repair has a built-in advantage: working with cars. Kids—especially teenagers—love cars, and the school district offers a hands-on collision repair program. At one time, Blecic was a teacher in that program.
“Getting high school students interested in collision repair as a career is the trick,” he said. “Sometimes it’s easy. Kids may come from a family that’s already in the business; dad might be a body man or painter. Maybe someone owns a shop, so a son or daughter is just moving in as the next generation. Other kids tinker with cars as a hobby, make a great connection with a teacher, and decide to follow that course. For kids with some interest, but no connection to the industry, the key is to get them involved early, say ninth grade.”
Blecic added, “If you like working with your hands, there’s tremendous satisfaction in doing a collision job well and seeing results fairly quickly. The skills you acquire will always be with you. Once you earn your Red Seal endorsement, you can make a living anywhere in Canada, maybe anywhere in the world.”
Blecic has a very effective arrow in his quiver of selling points: money, a factor that always gets a young person’s attention.
If you like working with your hands, there’s tremendous satisfaction in doing a collision job well
and seeing results fairly quickly.”
“Many young people don’t realize that you can earn a good living in collision repair,” he said. “Working on cars is cool, but there’s money to be made too; a tech can start out earning $15 to $20 per hour. That increases with experience and competence. The industry has a high pay ceiling.”
Two of Blecic’s former students give credence to that point. Braedon Thiffeault and Nathan Case were not sure about their career choices. After trying a number of jobs, each decided to go into collision repair and acquired the proper training. For both young men, their decisions have proved to be sound. Thiffeault is now in his fifth year at Pre Tech Collision in Victoria. He started as an apprentice doing bodywork at $16 per hour. He has since acquired his Red Seal endorsement, now he is earning $25 per hour at a flat rate, and, as he said, “I’m continuously learning on the job. I see the guys around me making money, and I know this was a good choice for me.”
Working on cars is cool, but there’s money to be made too.”
Case is working for Parker’s Auto Body & Paint, also in Victoria, where he started three years ago at $15 per hour. He is now earning $21.50 an hour and on his way to Red Seal certification. He has seen what his workmates earn and knows that a $100,000/year income for someone in their mid- to late-twenties is attainable. “I’m very happy with my choice of career.”
Money is always a factor in selecting a career, but what exactly is the investment one has to make to generate a high-dollar return? For many young people, the choice comes down to paying for a four-year university education, at about $40,000, and possibly incurring a heavy debt load, or entering a two-year vocational program for around $6,000 (including tools). Which route offers a better return on investment?
Some clarity is provided by Jennifer Howard (name changed at source’s request). Howard went to a trade school, trained as a car painter, and upon completing her program (debt-free) quickly landed a job. She compared her situation to those of friends, who went to university, graduated with a degree and a load of debt, and for any number of reasons could not find jobs in their chosen field. While they are working minimum wage jobs, she is working her way up the collision centre ladder.
A Direct Path to Success
On the other side of Canada, Gord MacKenzie, the academic head of the School of Trades and Transportation at Nova Scotia Community College’s (NSCC) Akerley Campus, offers similar insight. “When you give junior high school students hands-on activities—such as collision repair—it stays with them,” he said. “Ideally, providing positive experiences about trades at that point in their education is beneficial when they’re making career choices post secondary.”
The school’s program attracts a variety of students, including some who have been in college and even have degrees, as well as ex-military personnel. All see collision repair as a sound option. Upon completing the one-year program, the school helps the new grads find apprenticeships. School, and three years of work, including an accumulation of 7,200 hours, can yield a Red Seal in just four years.
To inform students about the auto trade program, the school offers open houses at its 14 campuses and three community learning centres. Students and parents can talk to faculty and better understand what the program entails and the opportunities the career offers.
While it is the students that ultimately take the classes, MacKenzie points out that their parents are the real career advisors. After all, they can significantly influence their children’s career choices. “We can better inform parents at the open houses, present all that the repair field has to offer, and the satisfaction their children might achieve in this type of hands-on work.”
Emphasizing that there is room to grow in this business, MacKenzie notes that the school offers courses in business, marketing, and communication and that 16 percent of the school’s students go on to start their own businesses. “If they enjoy the business side and the independence it offers, then the sky is the limit.”
NSCC also has an array of industrial partners, including Graham Owen, general manager of the Steele Auto Group collision centres. Based in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Owen oversees five of Steele Collision Centre’s nine locations.
With so many shops to cover, Owen is always receptive to new talent. That is where the relationship with NSCC comes into play. Owen visits classes to enlighten students about what to expect in the collision trade and to persuade those who are interested to give it a try.
“I go into the classroom, and I can tell which students don’t want to be there; they’re the ones in the back row,” he said. “The ambitious ones are in the front row; they’re the ones I talk to. When they ask, Why collision repair? I give them critical information. I want them to understand that we offer top pay and job satisfaction. I add that they will always be in demand, they can work almost anywhere, and there’s a training process in place to help them get their Red Seal.”
But success is not automatic. Owen stresses that to be successful, you have to first be good and then be fast to earn at a lucrative flat-rate level. “The techs that put in the time and commitment to Red Seal certification and are proficient are on the way to earnings of $100,000 and more,” he said.
Owen helps them achieve that. He is a big proponent of apprenticeship and will annually hire several students for his shops and mentor the newcomers. For six weeks he will move them around different areas—estimating, working in parts, and on the floor helping with repairs—and expose them to the entire gamut of the collision repair business. He calls this an extended interview. It is followed by a three-month probationary period. Those that stay keep learning, improving, and earning.
Options for Growth
One person who saw the opportunities the collision repair industry offered is Rishi Bakshi, the regional development and market manager for Boyd Autobody & Glass’s British Columbia operations.
Bakshi got his formal auto repair education at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. He added nine years of experience on the shop floor and, after a soccer injury, moved into administration.
With a uni education, you put in your four years, get a degree, maybe have loans to repay, and no guarantee of a job. But learn a trade and you have created a foundation for survival.”
“The sweet spot for making the argument to come into the trade is between high school and post-secondary education,” Bakshi said. “Sometimes it comes down to comparing the trades to a university education. With a uni education, you put in your four years, get a degree, maybe have loans to repay, and no guarantee of a job. But learn a trade and you have created a foundation for survival. If you aren’t into books and like to work with your hands and see immediate results, this should be your interest.”
Like other collision industry professionals, Bakshi knows the importance of money to prospective techs. “Pay can vary, but in Canada, techs may start at about $37,000 a year, and with just a few years experience, can generally make around $74,000 annually, and in some cases, a good tech can even earn $100,000,” he said. “Your only investment beyond tuition is a tool box, and some collision centres—such as ours—offer incentives that may include paying for schooling for body techs and supplying paint guns for painters. You get a job in the trades; you walk in with little or no overhead.”
Bakshi also understands the important role that parents can play in their child’s career planning. He knows that they are not always aware of what is available in the trades. They often see collision repair as a low-paying, dirty job. However, once they see the potential of the trades, the sophisticated technology involved, and the business opportunities, they are open to letting their kids explore the possibilities, especially if the student does not have a university mindset.
Bakshi offers an illustration to make his point. He is involved with Game Ready Elite 7on7 (sic), a football development program run by ex-CFL coaches for kids who want to make it in football on a college or pro level. Of course, not every kid who participates is successful, so he asks parents, “What’s your plan B if your kid doesn’t make it in football? These are able-bodied kids; they can work. If they go to the right school, get the right training, and make a commitment to the trade, they’ll make money and be set for their working years. I know what the industry has done for me and my family. It’s been very rewarding.”
Next time you are presented with an opportunity to sell the collision repair trade as a career, here are several points that could prove to be persuasive:
• Job security – There is a demand for collision repair techs and it is expected to be there for years to come. Even today, there are not enough techs to manage industry needs, and industry growth will continue to intensify the demand.
• Good money – Collision repair techs are well paid. Once trained, within a few years, a tech can become a highly skilled and valued professional. The return on training investment is attractive considering the cost of a typical four-year college degree.
• Continuous improvement – Techs continue to learn on the job and receive the training required to advance. Reputable collision centres want well-trained techs. They will help you succeed.
• Job portability – Once certified, you can work anywhere in Canada, maybe even farther afield.
This last point brings to mind a conversation this writer had several years ago with a fellow from Australia. He was traveling around the world, staying for extended periods of time in cities he liked. When asked how he was able to afford this kind of travel, he said he found jobs wherever he went. He was a pipefitter and could work anywhere. Further, he pointed out that the professionals of the world—lawyers, accountants, even doctors—have many more hoops to jump through before they can land a job. The bottom line is simple. Regardless of economic cycles, estimates of job growth, or changes in the automotive industry, one thing is certain: as long as there are vehicles, there will always be collisions. And because someone has to fix those cars and trucks, there will always be a demand for collision repair technicians.