Auto Body Industry Needs More Trained Technicians (Right Now)

  • By Ben Hanson
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  • Photography by Chad Sperling
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  • October 20, 2015

Keeping up with Kent Wagner as he shows off his “classrooms” at Northland Community & Technical College is a challenge. He’s in his 16th year as lead instructor for the Auto Body Collision Technology program in Thief River Falls that’s seeing its students walk straight through graduation into high-paying auto industry careers. The campus’ two body shops are state-of-the-art, hands-on learning centers that have been turning out some of the region’s most sought-after graduates at a time when the industry is struggling to keep up with the unprecedented demand for trained technicians.

During his combined 30 years in the auto body business—both as a shop technician and now an instructor at his alma mater—Wagner has lived through many significant evolutions in the industry. His experience is one of the main reasons why auto body shops throughout the region seek out Northland graduates… and why students seek out Northland.

This is a skill… an art that you can master and go on to do many different things and earn a lot of money at the same time.

Kent Wagner – Auto Body Collision Technology Instructor, Northland Community & Technical College

With every new car model released, innovation drives the auto industry forward. It also drives demand for skilled workers who are trained to work with the latest technology. Change is constant, but it’s a challenge Wagner and his auto body program are well prepared to handle. He devotes himself to professional development throughout the year, attending training seminars so he can pass on the latest skills to his students (and keep his classrooms fully up-to-date). But while he admits there will always be new technology to master, Wagner believes the craft will never change.

“Once you learn this skill, it’ll never leave you,” Wagner said sitting up in his custom hot-rod desk chair. Talking about the value of learning this trade and the life-long opportunities it affords to his students, Wagner’s eyes light up. After 30 years in the industry, his passion is stronger than ever, as he sees a future that only gets brighter for those who learn the craft.

“You can do anything you want with these skills, and for years to come, too, because the cars may change, but the process stays the same,” Wagner affirmed. “This is a skill… an art that you can master and go on to do many different things and earn a lot of money at the same time.”

An Industry in Need

Despite the increasing demand for trained technicians in body shops all across the United States, class sizes haven’t grown at the same rate. The jobs are there. The money is most certainly there. But programs like the one at Northland simply cannot keep up with the industry’s demand.

You’re going to get a job, and you might even have an offer before you graduate.

Kent Wagner – Auto Body Collision Technology Instructor, Northland

“The industry has a shortage of technicians everywhere, so there’s no better time to get in here, get trained and get a job,” Wagner said with confidence. “You’re going to get a job, and you might even have an offer before you graduate.”

Employment reports prove that job security is a luxury no longer guaranteed with a traditional four-year degree. But those trends don’t hold for skilled workers with technical training, and there’s no better example than the auto body industry. As long as automobiles continue to dominate the road, people who know how to work on them will be needed.

“You can be a technician, an estimator, an insurance adjuster, a parts specialist, or a paint rep that travels around the country,” Wagner said, listing off just a handful of the many different career paths his students have gone down. “If you know what you’re talking about and have the skills, you will always be in demand.”

‘Kind of like Magic’

At the end of the day, auto body technicians are in the customer service business. The goal is to put a smile on the car owner’s face when they come to the shop to pick up their repaired vehicle. Josh Walton, a 2006 Northland graduate from Gully, MN—a quiet townhome to fewer than 100 residents—likens it to a magic trick.

“What I like most about my job as an auto body technician is getting to work on totally messed up cars and make them look brand new again,” Walton said with the excitement of a kid tearing open a new box of LEGOs ready to get to work. “The whole point is to make it look new again like it never got into an accident… kind of like a magic trick.”

What Walton and his fellow technicians do in the shop every day is art, not magic. How easy it was for Walton to find a job, however, does sound a bit miraculous to anyone who’s slogged through a typical job hunt. The week he was scheduled to walk through graduation, he finally decided to follow up on some leads he received via Northland’s network of industry contacts. Walton’s friend did the same. Both found jobs and started their careers within a week and a half of graduating. It’s a pattern that has become the standard routine for Northland’s auto body grads.

There’s kind of a shortage of technicians, so the job demand is there.

Josh Walton – Body Shop Metal Technician, Rydell Chevrolet

“We just hired someone from Northland who just graduated,” Walton said. “We have 16 total technicians here at Rydell Chevrolet [in Grand Forks, ND], and I think half went to Northland. I know there are other shops looking, and we’re still looking, too. There’s kind of a shortage of technicians, so the job demand is there.”

Walton’s story also illustrates how the Northland network continues to grow. Visit any auto body shop in the region and chances are good you’ll run into somebody with ties to Kent Wagner and Northland’s auto body technician program. When graduates leave school to start their careers, they become lifelong advocates for the program.

Military to Mail Carrier: John’s Story

John Boury is a fourth-year student at a two-year institution. At first look, he doesn’t fit the mold of a model student, but he may be Northland’s biggest advocate and best ambassador.

Boury is older than your average student, having retired from 25 years in the military in 2005. After a short stint driving truck, he landed at the post office as a part-time mail carrier. But his dream had always been to work on old cars, so he eventually enrolled in a few auto mechanic and welding courses at Northland’s East Grand Forks campus. When he discovered the auto body technician program up in Thief River Falls, he knew he had finally found his true calling.

I can’t say enough good things about the auto body program. It’s been the best decision of my life.

John Boury – Auto Body Collision Technology Student, Northland

“I absolutely love this place,” Boury said with a soft, sincere tone you might not expect from a seasoned military man. “I can’t say enough good things about the auto body program. It’s been the best decision of my life,” Boury continued “It’s fulfilled a dream of mine, as I was able to restore and paint my 1956 Ford pickup. It was my old truck so I loved it, but it wouldn’t turn a head to save its soul. Everything was rusted out and dented. It was a miserable thing to look at.”

When Boury first hauled in his old truck, the look on Cody Johnson’s face made him think he may have taken on too big a challenge right out of the gate. (Johnson, another graduate-turned-instructor, teaches the first-year courses alongside Kent Wagner.) But Boury was eager to get to work—the opportunity to work on personal vehicles is one of the biggest draws for the auto body tech program.

“[Johnson] was not impressed,” Boury said with a chuckle as he recalled that first impression of his beloved truck. “He saw how much work was needed. But he was so good and so patient. He didn’t do the work, but he taught me how to do it all. I remember telling Cody how I couldn’t believe that I was actually doing this myself, and he would just smile and nod and then turn me loose to keep working away.”

‘Most Rewarding Job’

The more you learn about this work, the more you realize just how expansive the opportunity really is for those who do the training and develop their skills… especially for graduates of premier programs like the one at Northland’s Thief River Falls campus. But great career potential is just one of the more obvious benefits of working in the auto industry.

Job satisfaction is a lesser-known, but perhaps even more important perk of the job. Consider what the work really entails: you’re single-handedly restoring someone’s $50,000 pride and joy. Cars are a part of the family, stored indoors, bathed, and nurtured. When accidents happen, it’s a personal loss for many car owners. As an auto body technician, you get to bring their “baby” back to life.

“To see a customer come in and flash the biggest smile when they see the work you’ve done to restore their baby… it’s so rewarding,” Wagner said as he peered out his office window to an unusually quiet body shop. That momentary stillness would soon be replaced with the buzz of pneumatic tools, paint sprayers, and the excitement of a new semester.

“If you’re a people person, this would be an excellent career for you because at the end of the day you’re getting paid to put smiles on your customers’ faces with your work in the shop,” he explained, “To me, it’s got to be the most rewarding job ever.”

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