For many repair businesses it must feel like being caught between a rock and a hard place.
Last year, skills shortages were the number one issue facing repair businesses. In 2024 many are trying to find a way forward, knowing keeping talented staff, whether they are promising young apprentices or seasoned veterans is part of the solution.
On one hand, finding skilled staff remains the number one issue, with two thirds of paint and panel respondents to Capricorn’s State of the Nation Special Report: The Skills Shortage saying they were struggling to find people.
But number two and three in the survey, finding a work/life balance and taking holidays, were both time related as businesses struggled to deal with workload. The reason the two are crucially intertwined is more businesses are finding the time they dedicate to training and development is having a direct impact on staff retention.
Engagement is everything
Capricorn Society national collision manager Mark Lockwood recognises the dilemma many of their members are facing and is keen to promote upskilling and training as part of the solution.
“I believe that staying relevant and keeping your team engaged is more important today than ever,” Lockwood says.
“Many of our Capricorn Members would love to have more time to dedicate to team training, but unfortunately between the high workloads and the shortage of skilled people they don’t get the opportunity they would like to invest in staff training”.
“With the ever-evolving landscape of the car parc in Australia and the constant addition of new technologies in our cars, it is important that Collision trades people keep up to date with the knowledge needed to repair new vehicles successfully and safely”.
A massive 83 per cent of collision businesses in the State of Nation survey said they employed or would employ apprentices, so Lockwood agrees generating quality recruits and the perception of the collision industry were important.
“There have been many discussions in various forums and industry events around improving the attraction for young people into the collision industry. Whilst some organisations are making a concerted effort to showcase our industry and try and attract young talent it is the responsibility of all of us do our piece in promoting this industry”.
For industry veterans like Capricorn Member, Aaron Scagliotta, director of a group of five automotive businesses in WA including Gino’s Panel and Paint and the Reneew Collision Repair Centre, training and staff development is a big part of the answer for most businesses and that can come at a cost.
“Don’t think about the short-term expense, think about the long-term outcome,” Scagliotta says by way of advice.
“I would say be grateful that you’ve got someone willing to learn your trade, embrace the opportunity that they’re coming in.”
Scagliotta has 15-20 apprentices across his business and he believes training and personal development are critical to keep them engaged with their own careers.
“Sometimes, we as an industry don’t utilise these young people correctly,” he says.
“Instead of them coming in and learning how to repair a quarter panel or change a quarter panel or replace the door, they’ve got them just pulling cars apart and putting them back together, or they’ll get them washing cars or they’ll get them sweeping the floor. Sometimes they don’t get that proper opportunity to develop.”
He says the difficulty often lies with managing expectations across the whole business when there is a labour shortage but running a workshop is based around output of jobs.
“That’s a real temptation, but the one thing that ends up suffering is the ability for that young person to learn or develop or train,” Scagliotta says.
“We’re trying to get out of our short-term pain and get a short-term gain and really in the long run, we’re punishing ourselves.
“I’m saying to my managers, no, we have to make the sacrifice. We have to give that person the opportunity to learn. If we don’t, then we’re not going to create anything good at the end. Because what I want at the other end is a legacy employee. I’m looking for a guy that’s finished off his time as a panel beater and he loves still being in the environment and he stays with me for 10 years.”
Culture is part of the retention solution
Scagliotta says he sees this as the long-term reward for the investment in an apprentice and most of Capricorn’s respondents agree, with 71 per cent saying they employ apprentices for the next generation of skills not for money, the survey found.
Capricorn’s State off the Nation survey results also indicates 57 per cent of automotive business had apprentices that did not finish their qualification, a figure that is even higher with other trades, so recruiting and keeping young people over the four-year journey is a vital part of the skills solution.
Scagliotta believes any approach to retention to apprentices or young staff has to be multi-pronged and look at each facet of what is holding them back.
Scagliotta recognises with some young people the biggest de-stabilisers for completion can be their personal or home life, over which employees have limited control.
But creating a welcoming and supporting work environment can go a long way toward the foundations that can keep some of them on track.
“I would absolutely be looking to get that apprentice form a relationship with the technician they work with because I feel like if a young person comes in and they form a bond with the person that’s training them, they don’t want to let that other person down.”
But equally important is a workshop culture where they have a sense of belonging and purpose as well as being comfortable.
“Making them feel part of something more important, making them the front part of a team and that they will get on with one another.
“I’ll remind them all the time that they spend more time with each other than they do with their families, so they need to get along with each other. I always push for civil environments, that make sure everyone speaks of each other with respect.
“I tell these guys constantly; I just want them to be happy. I just want them to come to the work, do their job and enjoy being here.”
Key to this well-being and purpose is giving staff the opportunity to train and the opportunity to learn new technologies, he says.
“The other thing I think is still very important is they need to find it exciting and dynamic. If it’s the same thing, day in and day out, I think that they lose stimulation and that’s where they lose the trust.”
Part of a future industry
Scagliotta says his specialised Reneew Collision Repair Centre which is Tesla accredited and fully EV complaint has given him the opportunity to align the business with OEM’s, offer more training and specialised skills and even to create more flexibility around time to develop some of his employees.
Perhaps most vital of all, he says, is the trainees knowing they are part of a repair shop of the future and are building the skills for a future career.
“They love cars anyway but for them to come in and then all of a sudden, the car is like a laptop or like an iPad; that’s another whole thing. If you go deeper again, all the different competencies that they’re using to repair these vehicles, aluminium carbon fibre, steel, riveting and gluing; it’s all really advanced. You’re really like the professors of the panel beating industry when you get involved in this stuff.”
This level of expertise drives their aspiration and their confidence in the future industry.
“My most experienced technician I have in the shop that does everything, it’s a career for him. He’s at the point where it’s the dedication of his life to be the way he is. I can see the young people aspire to be like that, really knowing the technology, the methods of repairing vehicles and the equipment.”
This passion and aspiration yield rewards for them individually in their career growth and in turn gives back to the business with loyalty and quality results.
Scagliotta believes formal training and learning on the job are both vital ways to keep this spirit alive, but he also thinks managers need to think outside the square about the skills trainees might be lacking in their life. For instance, he has considered training in wealth management as something that would help them progress toward their own goals.
Keeping staff long term was fortunately one of the lower ranking elements in the Capricorn State of the Nation survey where it figured as an issue in only 16 per cent of businesses.
Scagliotta has a core group of experienced workers and leaders who make up the backbone of his networks but ensuring they understood the culture of personal and continual development, whether it is with apprentices or making the investment in foreign skilled workers, was important. His team have been particularly welcoming and helpful with foreign skilled workers.
“There’s a level of acceptance and gratitude from the existing employees when you bring these guys in, because they’re overwhelmed (by the work) and they just they can’t see an end to it. They’re actually thankful for the help. So that’s the first thing, they are accepted, and they are welcome. They’ve got other people within their group that can help them to deliver the outcome that they really want, and they all help one another.”
While the foreign worker path can be risky and expensive, especially with recent federal government immigration policy changes that have hit the industry, the culture within the workshops is unchanged and focussed on building that future.
Taking the initiative
Finally, Scagliotta can’t help sharing a bit of recruiting advice to help capture the imagination of young people. For him it is all about proactively challenging perceptions of the industry people might have on the outside.
“I believe that the best way to do it is to do a bit of recruiting yourself,” he says.
“The way that I’ve done it successfully at Gino’s Panel and Paint is I’ve run open days.
“When the young people are finishing school, in Years 11 and 12, they’re entertaining the intent of what they’re going to do next year. The idea is to try and find those kids that don’t really want to go around another year. And then you have an open day and you show them what we do and how we do it. And most importantly you involve families, you involve the mums and the dads, and you get them down for a day and you show them around and what we do.”
“I first did it in 2014/15 and it was a resounding success. I had probably 50 people out on the day that I did it. And I’ll probably bet that that gleaned probably 25 to 30 young kids that were interested. It gave me an opportunity to interview them and then I trialled a couple at a time. I put them in the shops and the technicians picked the ones that they wanted to recruit.”
Seeing the inside of a workshop and how it works not only potentially transforms their perceptions of the industry but all the career options that open up to potential candidates. Scagliotta has also produced videos interviewing the wide range of experiences and roles in his business to help convey this broader message.
“It bears fruit because of the types of kids that you that you get and that you’ve got the buy in of the parents and that’s the most important thing,” he says.
“Having the parents come in and see what we do and how we do it and the opportunities that are in it. Parents don’t want their kids to end up being in a dead-end place and the reality is that our industry is amazing.
“People outside of our industry, we don’t realise that they see us as like a negative type of role, like it’s dirty and there’s no future. But the reality is, it’s amazing; it’s engineering, its technology, its transport and I think that diversity has been lost.”
More information on Capricorn’s State of the Nation: Skills Report here