Finding and Keeping Technicians
The industry’s perpetual problem remains. It’s difficult and many shops prefer hiring green
by Brigid O'Leary
Steve Coyle recently had a talk with the head of human resources at his company, Auto Glass Specialists (AGS) in Madison, Wis. Being a large regional auto glass chain (before being acquired by Belron), AGS often runs ads in local papers to find new auto glass installers. Coyle was curious to find out what type of people these ads were bringing in. What he found out wasn’t a surprise.
“We’re not getting a whole lot of responses to the Want Ads from kids in high school or younger people,” said the technical training manager for the Performance Achievement Group (the training arm of AGS). “In the last nine months to a year, we’re getting more people with experience applying.”
Some shop owners and trainers wonder if they’re seeing fewer people in their 20s moving into the business. The thing is many shops like hiring inexperienced people so that they can train them in their own methods of installation on the job. The problem is that after shops take pains to train these technicians, they could lose them. And, in today’s climate of thinning margins, shops can’t offer very high salaries.
Wanted: A Diversified Career
Coyle’s talk with his human resources director yielded even more interesting tidbits. For one thing, many of the new AGS hires don’t want to focus on auto glass. Instead they’re interested in other automotive careers, like auto mechanics or body work.
“When kids come out of high school there’s so much opportunity for further education,” Coyle said. “They’ll go into technical college for auto mechanics or auto body and they won’t look at auto glass.”
Others are puzzled that the auto mechanic field seems to be the destination of choice for many students in technical school.
“Kids in high school want to be auto mechanics,” said Michael O’Hara, president of Salem Glass and Mirror in Salem, Ohio. “Why don’t they want to be auto glass technicians? I think high school kids don’t want to come into this field because people don’t talk about how rewarding it can be. Everytime I put a windshield in someone’s car, I have the potential to save their life or kill them. That’s a pretty responsible position to be in.”
While Bob Beranek, the owner of Automotive Glass Consultants in Sun Prairie, Wis., contends that the bulk of installers in the industry are in their 20s, he admits that there can be other issues that steer young people away from a career in auto glass.
“They do have to work outdoors,” Beranek said. “That’s probably something that a lot of people don’t want to do.”
Then there’s the pay issue.
“To some extent, it’s [auto glass] a blue collar job,” said Dave Johnson, president of Interstate Glass in Smithfield, N.C. He says that his company hires the very best people who are available within its pay structure. “We are limited in the wages we can pay (because of insurer’s payments). That wage isn’t going to be what everybody is looking for.”
Scott Owens, owner of Excel Auto Glass in Lake Katrine, N.Y., goes to trade schools to teach students about auto glass, but admits that careers in the field can be a tough sell. “Today our industry needs skilled technicians with integrity and good communication skills to deal with the many challenges in auto glass,” he said. “You don’t get qualifications like that with a minimum wage.”
So, in many cases, shops are making due with less-than-the-ideal employee because they can’t afford to pay that much.
“Half of the problem is that the only kids that you get to come in are coming in because you don’t have the money to drug test them,” said Scott Levin, owner of L & L Glass & Paint in Butler, Pa. “If they could pass the drug test, they would be going somewhere else.”
But others have more hope for the young technicians of today. Allen Lindsay, owner of Jonesboro Glass & Mirror, in Jonesboro, La., said the quality of installations is better than it was 15 or 20 years ago. While factors like improved urethanes and tools play a role in this trend, he added, “You can’t underestimate the role of the auto glass technician, especially if you hire the right ones. I won’t hire them unless they’re straight and honest,” Lindsay said. “We do have standards.”
Path to a Career
When shop owners like Lindsay and Levin do get good young installers, they want to keep them and put them through a lengthy training process. In fact, it seems most shop owners would rather train from within than go out and hire experienced help.
Many owners say they are not so concerned about experience because they feel they can train the right guy for the job. It’s the qualities a person brings to the job, they say, such as being on time, doing a good job and showing loyalty that are important.
Then there is also the point that if they train someone right the first time, then they don’t already possess any bad habits learned at other shops.
“If I had the luxury of time, I’d prefer to grow my own technicians,” O’Hara said. “I’d rather hire someone who doesn’t know anything about auto glass and teach them than hire someone with experience and try to unteach bad habits.”
While Coyle sees the benefit of training novices and steering clear of those people with bad habits, he thinks that some technicians can be an asset to any glass shop.
“There are some good people out there [who are experienced],” he said. “You have to pick and choose through your hiring practices. The guy with the previous experience has the mechanical know-how and the ability to figure out how to take the vehicle apart. If you can prove your procedures are better than the learned habits, they become easier to break.”
Different shops have different ways of going about teaching new hires. Safelite AutoGlass in Columbus, Ohio, used to let store managers determine how to train new installers in their shops, but this year it went to a more formal program. The program runs from six to eight weeks and sends new hires or current employees who aspire to be technicians out with a trainer for half a day. Then they move into the classroom to learn customer service skills, map reading skills and how to repair and sharpen tools in the field.
“We really weren’t getting the experienced technicians that we needed and we didn’t see anyone else growing technicians,” said Brenda Downing, director of associate services and development for the company. “Being the largest company in the industry, we decided to do something.”
Other companies rely on less formal methods. The key for Levin is keeping the new hires in the apprenticeship mode for as long as possible.
“We don’t let them near urethane for a year,” he said. “When I bring someone in, I bring them in as a trainee and I try to get state subsidies on their salaries. I find the longer I can get them scraping urethane and unscrewing screws the better. You can’t give someone a gun and tell them to apply urethane.”
Though most shop owners would prefer to train new hires themselves, there are other options. There are more ways for shop owners to outsource training than ever before, Beranek said. Of course, these do cost money.
Keeping Them Aboard
Eventually good instal-lers will learn the ropes. And, when that happens, the shop owner needs to be prepared to keep them happy and challenged. Otherwise, they’ll leave. Levin and Lindsay see them leave for factory and mill jobs. This has made Levin cynical about keeping people in auto glass.
“I don’t ever think as employees as lifetime employees like when my dad had guys working for him,” he said. “My dad had guys work 40 and 45 years for him.”
Others say the greatest challenge is keeping employees from leaving for another shop in the area or, even worse, becoming a new competitor in an oversaturated market.
“The problem is after you train them or give them some good information, they go out and start doing business,” said Gilbert Gutierrez, senior technical advisor for Equalizer Industries in Round Rock, Tex. “It’s hard to keep them. The good guys usually end up as owners of their own companies.”
To counter this, shop owners usually need incentives and challenges to keep their employees excited.
“You should bring them up through some sort of a graded system,” Beranek said. “There is going to be a time where they’ll reach the highest level and the top wage. That’s where innovation will come in. You have to involve them in the business while they’re learning. Otherwise they’re going to balk later on.”
Benefits can also play a key role. Johnson deploys a program that gives employees money down the road, 401(k)s, vested profit sharing and health benefits to keep his technicians from leaving.
“Once they’re here six years, they have some money [under the profit sharing],” Johnson said. “In some ways, it could be the down payment they need to go into business for themselves. At the same time, they also see you’re working for them, involving them and providing a future for them.”
But with margins so thin, other shop owners lament that they can barely afford to make a profit, much less provide benefits.
“It’s tougher to pay them well and we can’t provide benefits,” Lindsay said.
But certain things go beyond benefits. Gutierrez, Anderson and many corporate trainers, including Tim Sanders from Yahoo, say there’s no substitute for treating people with respect and being likeable. Often, that goes further than pay or benefits in keeping employees happy, especially with a new generation of workers who often value happiness and freedom over pay.
“The key to holding on to valuable employees is to listen to them,” said Owens, who also offers commissions for the business technicians bring in and little things, like a Christmas party, summer picnics, and a turkey on Thanksgiving. “Treat them with respect. Thank them daily for the commitment they have made to your company and reward them for work well done. Benefits are a big plus but the extras are the bonus.”
Les Shaver is a contributing editor to AGRR.
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