BMW April 2022

The UK has a very real crisis in getting fresh talent into the body shop sector. In part that’s down to the common perception repairing vehicles is low grade, dirty work. In part it’s due to the reputation of ‘if there’s nothing else better, why not repair vehicles?’

There have been many initiatives from trade bodies and fabulous individuals who try to change the position, but the whole process is like pushing mud uphill with a small twig. There are some salient points:

I, like you, care deeply about the future of the body shops. We can do something to fix what we need, but the bigger picture – well, that’s for the ‘Haz’ (Harry) Sussex, Oprah Winfrey, minor celebs and politicians to take on.

In the UK, we are obsessed by status. Repairing a vehicle correctly to ensure it performs as well as it did before the impact is not seen in the same way as an accountant, a lawyer, a doctor, or social media ‘personality’. So, this major economic activity just gets on with life, as preening glory-seeking people completely ignore it.

Educationalists rarely ‘see’ the collision repair business or indeed the wider automotive aftermarket. If there is an understanding, it is based on a view from the 1960s, which is ironic given many teachers holding such views were born decades later.

Do we need to convince teachers?

The short answer is no – this is not our target audience. However, teachers, parents and guardians are the ‘route’ to reach our target audience. This is what Dave Reece, Julie Eley and more have started in the UK with community interest company ‘Ready4work’ to make for the first time – yes, the first time – the automotive aftermarket visible to young people before they leave school or college. The public face of ‘Ready4Work’ is ‘School of Thought’. If there is any ‘fault’, it was down to our sector not knowing the situation, and once it did realise what was going on, what should be done to correct it – enter Dave and Julie.

Remarkably, whereas 45 years ago in the UK, teachers did not turn their nose up at the sector – far from it, the discovery of a good market for lots of fresh talent has pushed ‘Ready4Work’ from a home spun exercise into a national force within two years from foundation. Oh, and it’s only just got going.

Raising awareness

‘Ready4Work’ seeks to introduce young people to all aspects of the automotive aftermarket. There is another device that I was involved with called ‘AutoRaise’, which sought to specifically help place young talent into body shop apprenticeships. Part of that process was the creation of a multi-skill education programme, which sought to address another huge challenge. 

For decades the only real education aspiration as pushed by the UK Government and regional assemblies was degrees. The result has been for the traditional 5% of the school population with the inclination to go to university has swollen to closer to 40%, and whilst 45 years ago students were given parental income tested grants, today a student can leave University with £40 000 to £80 000 of debt. The courses have been watered down, so that 45 years ago a degree carried the same weight as the next level up – a Masters – does today. 

The irony is the universities are mired in debt as they spend student cash before it even arrived; the students are in debt and significant numbers struggle to get a job that requires any sort of degree. 

Ready to go to the ‘Bat cave’? Yes! Suddenly those paid apprenticeships are looking attractive – earn as you learn, debt free and a useful qualification.

There’s more. Did we tell the new talent the car/bakkie/heavy truck/bus has become hugely technology centric? Did we tell the new talent that working on vehicles requires lots of skills and the long-term outlook is strong? Frankly, we don’t care what powers vehicles nor if they can drive themselves – accident-free mass transport is not likely for another 50 years. This sector really is a ‘win-win’ for a long-term career.

Keeping those feet planted on the ground

The framework I helped develop for AutoRaise was originally designed to integrate panel, paint and strip/rebuild ‘mechanical’ into each person’s skill base. This was widely challenged, and even though it takes longer, single skill education definitely has a place. There was a much, much wider point – to make a system flexible enough to deliver craft specialists through to future business leaders. This required:

  1. All students were trained for a total of nine months in the core subjects of panel, paint and strip/rebuild ‘mechanical’. The process included standardised approach to language as well as maths, to ensure any gaps left by schools were filled.
  2. At this point all students get to qualify at the lowest level in three body shop disciplines – again this gets people to understand all the skills and what path they need to consider next. The students then specialise in a variety of routes, each of which is in short supply.
  3. One route would be hands on, with less academic emphasis but higher craft attainment. This is where the great panel and paint people get to show their talent – the bed rock of the sector.
  4. One route would be less hands on, with more managerial content – this leads to the managers of the future, formally trained to run body shops – vital for profitability.
  5. One route extends on the previous level and extends to a degree, so delivering for the first-time future MSO directors and business owners trained for body shops! 
  6. For those inclined, they can do everything, or combinations of different elements, should they wish to.

The whole system can work for single or multiple trade qualifications – the whole point is the system does not shoe-horn a talent into a single path ending in a degree. Thanks to it being focused on body shops, the content is all about… body shops. We are looking after our own, for the future.

What happens next?

It is true the systems outlined exist, but the success has been patchy. In part Government did not understand the dire skills shortage, and took away multiple levels of attainment from AutoRaise to leave just one. It also took away some of the flexibility, so limiting the success of craft orientated people. That’s thanks to the curse of all economies, Government. The flip side is the system does exist, is more than a mere paper exercise and can be built upon.

Meanwhile Ready4Work is charging at all areas of the automotive aftermarket, and through sheer determination is making a mark. Again, the path is not easy as admin types pick endless holes in processes they have not seen before, but as long as we remain focused on the end game – producing fresh talent with a wide range of skills matched to their ability – we will succeed. Fresh talent, by the way, can be almost anyone of any age – just the desire to work with vehicles and willingness to learn is what we need. 

by Andrew Marsh