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Mitigating the Shortage of Collision Repair Techs

by Eli Greenbaum

Originally published in Collision Quarterly, Fall 2020

It is no secret that collision centres often find it difficult to attract 
qualified technicians, and with COVID-19 turning life upside down, the search is even tougher.

Whether a shop is looking for a repair or refinish tech, it seems there are not enough good ones around to fill the demand. With the average age of currently employed technicians hovering in the mid-50s, pursuit of fresh talent to replace exiting professionals is becoming a priority for many shops. And with new vehicles becoming more complex—featuring an array of advanced safety features, sensors, infotainment components, finishes, and much more—collision repair and refinish is now a high-tech career requiring sophisticated skills. Where are all those techs going to come from?

The industry is doing its part

The collision industry is acutely aware of the situation. Steps are being taken across Canada to attract young people to the industry, provide them with the proper training, and direct them to shops willing to give them a chance. Progressive collision centres, vocational schools, and trade organizations are putting forth the effort—sometimes in a coordinated endeavor. Here is a look at what they are doing:

One company actively pursuing new talent is Boyd Autobody & Glass, where Rishi Bakshi, regional development and marketing manager for British Columbia operations, is leading the charge. Boyd has almost 700 collision centres in Canada and the United States and is always searching for competent help. 

“Everyone knows there’s a shortage of technicians,” Bakshi said. “Learning the collision repair trade in school is a fine way to gain knowledge of the basics, but that can only take you so far. You’ve also got to be good in the shop, and that’s a whole different kind of learning. A candidate must have the aptitude and the right attitude—do the work well and be willing to work hard. Having one without the other is not a good fit for us.”

These kids can earn a nice living, and collision techs are always in demand.”

Bakshi got his formal auto repair education at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT), added nine years of experience on the shop floor, and then moved into administration. Today, he is using his practical knowledge and experience to help Boyd find the right people. 

Bakshi is involved with the Program Advisory Councils (PAC) of trade schools such as BCIT and Vancouver Community College (VCC), where he helps develop auto repair programs and classes to ensure that students and instructors are up on the latest technology and industry trends. He meets with students, provides an insider’s view, and tells them what to expect in terms of work in real life. Bakshi also arranges field trips to Boyd shops and gives serious students an opportunity to shadow techs. All this keeps him—and Boyd—visible, provides exposure to students, and jump-starts the process of recruiting the best prospects. “These kids can earn a nice living, and collision techs are always in demand,” he added with a smile, “because unfortunately, people always crash cars and need them fixed.”

Bakshi is not alone in his mission. Dejla Sabanac is an industry relations advisor with the Automotive Retailers Association (ARA). She is involved with an ARA program called Auto Careers B.C. that focuses on attracting young people to the many trades—including collision repair—in the industry.  Like Bakshi, she participates in PAC committees. Her main concern is persuading students, especially minorities and women, that the collision industry offers a rewarding career. To reach prospects, Sabanac attends college career fairs and makes herself available to students at vocational schools to promote the industry. She acknowledges that it is a challenge to get students to see collision repair as a career.

“Many students don’t understand the industry and the opportunities it presents,” Dejla said. “They have outdated stereotypes about collision repair that are hard to dispel. They don’t realize how high tech it now is or how much they could earn—how far their skills could take them. Many parents don’t understand either. They don’t want their kids working in the trades, but not everyone can be a doctor or lawyer. My job is to educate them about what being a collision tech is all about and the great future it offers.”

Sabanac is also making sure the industry supports the students and helps them develop. The ARA is involved with programs such as Skills Canada, a competition that promotes the trades and gives students at the secondary and college levels the chance to compete against their peers. She also makes sure that students know that the ARA can help them with financial assistance through its foundation, which awards scholarships and bursaries to students pursuing automotive careers. 

Schools are too

Across Canada, vocational schools are doing their part. Experienced instructors lead students through a series of repair program stages designed to prepare them for entry-level jobs and apprenticeships at collision centres. BCIT chief instructor Randy Sandhu brings 35 years of industry experience, including shop work and teaching, to his students. He has helped shape an auto repair curriculum that is modelled on federal and provincial guidelines and establishes consistent procedures and standards that students must meet if they are to succeed in the program. Students receive the basic skills that allow them to advance through body work or painting programs. Sandhu also takes them through the realities of the trade: students are introduced to the concept of hard work and starting at the bottom. 

“They need to have accurate expectations of what awaits them,” he said. “If they go in the first day thinking they’ll do a major repair on a fancy car, they’re going to be disappointed. You have to work your way up.”

Sandhu averages 40 students in the foundation program and 32 in the apprenticeship courses per semester. He loves teaching and lets his students know that good techs have an earning potential of up to $100K annually. 

At Vancouver Community College, Wendy Gilmour is currently teaching a collision repair program for international students. She has worked with numerous repair and refinish classes at the secondary and college levels. “Collision repair was popular,” she said. “All our classes are always filled. The kids love it, work hard, and then find out it’s hard to get a job if they’re unprepared, so most of them take it seriously.”

John Zhang and Pomil Preet Singh are two students who take it very seriously. They see the program as a genuine opportunity and are waiting for the school to recover from the COVID-19 disaster so they can continue their classes. Both dream of going on to a collision shop and acknowledge there is a lot of work ahead. “I know a real shop is different from school,” said Zhang. “But school will prepare me for the shop, where I will keep learning.” Singh, too, knows what awaits him, “I love this course. I love working on cars. And I’m ready for the hard work.”

Gilmour said the students work on real cars—students’ and faculty members’ cars—so they get a taste of reality. Upon program completion, they are welcomed by shop owners who test them by giving them, naturally, the dirty jobs first. “That in-shop experience is extremely valuable,” she said. “Do it well and it can lead to an apprenticeship. Of course, it’s also the eye-opener that tells you whether the job is really for you.”

The results are positive

Industry representatives have good reason to be involved with the schools; after all, it is an investment in their own future. The PAC meets twice per year at BCIT and VCC, for example, to confirm that classes meet industry standards. Companies such as Boyd and others sponsor awards and scholarships for exceptional students. It is a joint effort between schools and the industry to identify the top students and best prospects. OEM and I-CAR involvement means that schools have the latest tools and technology and students learn about new materials and repair and refinish techniques. With all that going on, as Sandhu said, “industry is very receptive to our students.” 

I know a real shop is different from school.”

Like other vocational colleges, BCIT and VCC send students to the Skills Canada Collision Repair Program competition. The program, which includes collision repair and car painting, was developed to help make young people aware of the industry’s career opportunities across Canada. The program focuses on competition but also gives participants the opportunity to improve their skills by learning from the professionals who participate by instructing and supporting the students. The events are an opportunity for students to network with peers and industry experts who take the time to get to know them. 

Skills Canada participation can pay off handsomely for everyone involved. For Aaron Hebb, it opened the door to a job he never anticipated. Hebb was attending Nova Scotia Community College when he competed in the Skills Canada car painting category in 2010 and won the national championship. At the competition, he met Sherwin-Williams Paints representatives who eventually offered him a job as a sales rep. He accepted. He credits Skills Canada for helping him sharpen his technical and networking skills and advises newcomers to take classes, get training, and find a mentor. But there is more. Hebb echoed Bakshi when he said, “Skills can be taught, attitude can’t.”

Cecile Bukmeier had a similar experience. She became interested in cars in junior high when she began reading Hot Rod magazine, saw cars with beautiful paintwork, and declared, “I want to do that.” While friends and family discouraged her career choice, saying, “Car painting is not for women,” she was determined. Bukmeier entered the Auto Body Technician program at Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton (NAIT). After completing the program, she entered an apprenticeship with a local shop. Then, in 2013, she went to Skills Canada and won the national championship in car painting. The event gave her a chance to network, test her skills, and gain confidence. She is now a full-time instructor at NAIT, the first female instructor on staff. She believes shop owners need to give women and young people a chance; otherwise, they are missing a great pool of potential techs.There is a bright future in this field, and there are solid mechanisms in place to recruit and train young talent who recognize the potential rewards of collision repair. As Sandhu points out to his students, from the time he was an apprentice and throughout his career, he has never been unemployed. That gets their attention.