Articles,  Autobody News

New Jersey Collision Repair Professionals Want Schools to Put Students First

Published in Autobody News

John Truman, owner of Truman Muscle Car Parts in Egg Harbor Township,  NJ, has been fighting to save local collision repair education programs since 2014, when he learned that his alma mater, Atlantic County Institute of Technology, had discontinued its high school auto body program. “In the last seven years, auto body education programs closed in Atlantic and Cumberland counties. The collision repair industry is poising to shut down – we need new techs NOW; however, many of the vo-tech auto body programs are dying. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good. It’s impossible to bring them back!” Truman stressed.

Truman’s passion for the collision repair industry has lasted for over 40 years and is joined by that of his friend Bill Baitzel Jr., who has “worked in the industry since I was old enough to hold the light for my dad.” Baitzel Jr. has worked as a field service engineer for a vehicle manufacturer since 2010, but for the five preceding years, he worked as an auto tech instructor at a local high school, and he recently began teaching part-time as an adjunct professor.

Bill Baitzel Sr., who has taught automotive technology since 1969, rounds out the trio of industry professionals who shared some details about their mission to save the vo-tech auto body education programs in southern New Jersey.

The three advocates of collision repair education sit on the advisory committees for Salem County Vo-Tech, Gloucester County Vo-Tech, and Rowan College; Baitzel Jr. also serves on Brookedale Community College’s advisory committee. This interaction, along with the combined 120+ years of industry experience between the three men, allows them to offer a unique perspective about the issues impacting the decline in auto body education programs and, subsequently, the number of students graduating and ready to enter the workforce.

“We see few kids enrolled each year,” Truman lamented. “I’m ten years away from retirement, and since it takes at least a decade for a new tech to get really good, I’m wondering who will fill my shoes – and the shoes of my peers – when the time comes to retire. We need to generate students’ interest in the collision repair industry NOW!”

Budget Constraints & Student Interest

It’s not exactly shocking to learn that a lack of funding has a major impact on a vo-tech’s ability to run a successful auto body education program. Baitzel Jr. noted, “Funding in the school districts is tight, and the budgets get cut all of the time. It’s a challenge for instructors to stay current since technology is changing every year, but English, gym, math, history and basic science have not changed in years.”

Truman believes that young people are still interested in collision repair, but “Students are often led to believe college is their only path to success. Years ago, my son’s guidance counselor tried to discourage him from transferring to a vo-tech school because ‘that’s where the dumb kids go!’ Not every kid wants to go to college or is meant to. Lots of people prefer working with their hands and building things, and there’s a great living that can come out of it – but we need better exposure to students.”

Baitzel Jr. offered a perspective on this discouragement: “Schools were rated and awarded money based on the number of students who graduated and went to college.”

Although student enrollment is “one of the determining factors of budget revenue, it is not the sole source of funding, merely a contributing factor,” said Jason Helder, principal at Salem County Vo-Tech (SCVTS). Referring to indications that standard schools are “steering” students away from vo-tech education, Helder stated, “We have not experienced that in our county. Our school has great relationships with our sending schools, and they have been very supportive of their students’ pursuit of vocational education.”

A lack of funding makes it difficult for vo-techs to supply the materials needed to learn the collision repair industry, sometimes leading to creative but less than ideal solutions. “If I were a student who signed up for an automotive or collision repair course and walked in to find we were working on bicycles or spray-painting lockers, I would turn back around,” Baitzel Sr. said. “This is why we can’t keep students engaged.”

“The teachers and administrators need to stop pointing fingers. Right now, the students are the big losers,” Baitzel Sr. continued. “We need to create a vision of where these students are coming from and what they want to achieve. The program must be developed to meet the needs of the industry so that students are employable after graduation. It is time to think of the student and put them first!”

Helder agrees that things need to improve, and SCVTS is currently in the process of “revamping the program to allow students to display artistic expressions and creativity. We are looking to partner with a local junkyard to repair lightly damaged vehicles, allowing our shop to take time on the process and permitting many students to work on them. We also plan to start an after-school vehicle restoration club.”

Starting at the School

Solving the current technician crisis cannot occur without involvement from the vo-tech schools and the auto body instructors training the next generation of collision repair professionals. In addition to the funds needed to invest in the proper tools and equipment, vo-tech programs need to obtain the right certifications.

“ASE and I-CAR certifications are the leverage you need for funding. When I had my businesses, I only hired ASE Certified Technicians. If the instructor is not Master ASE or I-CAR Certified, what makes him think he can teach the subject?” Baitzel Sr. asked. “If you run a hobby shop, you will not keep students, but if you do a good job, teach what you say, and the student sees their growth, your program and funding for it will grow.”

All three collision professionals suggest that improvements could be made to the curriculum at local schools. Baitzel Jr. recommended, “The schools need to develop programs that train a student to work in the industry, helping the student be prepared to walk into an apprenticeship in a shop. Ideally, the school trains an entry-level student, and understanding they are getting a trainee, not a technician, the shop is willing to invest in the student and grow their own.”

“Students need to learn shop safety and mannerisms before showing up to a worksite because a shop is not going to be a babysitting area; it is a business, and they expect students to come to work ready to work and learn,” Baitzel Jr. continued. “We need to let the shop know what to expect from the student, including educating them on how the schools’ insurance policy covers the student in the shop. A shop does not want a liability issue, so if you don’t prepare students for the trade, apprenticeship opportunities will disappear. However, when you produce good students who become good techs, they are the program’s advertisement.”

Unfortunately, for Salem County Vo-Tech, local apprenticeships are rare because the school is in a “very rural area with little to offer in business. They need a big distribution hub there,” Truman offered.

While that may be the problem locally, schools around the country after seeing similar reductions in the number of students enrolled in auto body programs. Baitzel Jr. believes this problem is more widespread: “Attracting more students to collision repair education programs will require a shift in society with regards to the stigma associated with working a trade. Few students have an opportunity to explore the trades in school, and vo-techs need to attract both the parent and the student to the program because, without the parent’s support, the student will never get an opportunity – they both need to see how working in this field can offer a fulfilling, successful career.”

Truman agreed: “Schools need to advertise with pictures and videos of the program’s projects to demonstrate to parents how many opportunities there are in and around this trade.”

Collision Pros Lending a Hand

When ACIT first closed its auto body program, Truman and his son, Dan, volunteered to lead an afterschool club, volunteering their time, supplies and materials. The program attracted 15 students and lasted for two years, but rising costs made it impossible to continue the club.

Truman didn’t give up though. Learning that the most successful auto body programs in the country had one thing in common, large advisory boards, he joined several local boards. In 2015, Truman engaged Baitzel Jr. whose employer donated brand new vehicles to the auto mechanics programs at ACIT and Egg Harbor Township. More recently, Truman was a guest speaker at the Pilgrim Academy.

Truman, Baitzel Jr. and Baitzel Sr. continue to support their local programs. They’ve scheduled meetings with local policymakers, contacted local companies in attempts to obtain wrecked vehicles for student to learn on, and provided the school’s administration with guidance and suggestions on improvements and possible funding options. On May 8, the school will host a car show to raise funds for the program.  

For auto body education programs to be successful, it’s going to take the whole army. “Teachers need to find a way to stay current with industry techniques and get their programs certified so they’re eligible for donations. The programs need to follow ASE and I-CAR curriculums, and they need current equipment and information for their lessons,” Baitzel Jr. insists. “Shop owners and managers need to join advisory boards and work with instructors. The industry needs to partner with and support the schools. Everyone needs to come together and get on the same page.”

Helder agrees that a strong advisory committee makes a huge difference. “The expertise and efforts of the Automotive Studies Advisory Committee has proven invaluable to our auto programs – in addition to assisting SCVTS prepare for NATEF accreditation, advisory members have sponsored and hosted students for cooperative education and structured learning experiences over the years, providing students with an opportunity to gain incredible experience working in a real-world environment. The advisory committee has also provided ideas and feedback to form and guide program direction, while relaying a vision of improvement to benefit students.”

Supporting your local vo-tech is important for the industry’s future, plus it grants access to future techs earlier and builds rapport with instructors. Getting involved is easy – join an advisory committee, offer shop tours, hire an apprentice, or offer to be a classroom guest speaker. “Contact your county vocational school, speak with the instructor, and become part of the program,” Helder encouraged. “You can give demonstrations to the students, work jointly on project cars, and invite seniors to the shop for internships. Most schools have a co-op education program that allows students to earn high school credit working in the field.”

“Shop owners and professionals can also join their local advisory committee,” Helder continued. “There is such a benefit for professionals to connect with the county vocational school. It allows the working professional to be part of the system that sustains the workforce by educating young people and bringing them into a career in the collision repair or automotive industry.”

Remember programs are always running on a tight budget too, so donating old equipment and supplies when the shop upgrades can help ensure students experience more exposure during the education. Like most automotive and collision education programs, SCVTS is most in need of “consumable supplies, including tape, filler, sandpaper and sanding blocks,” according to Helder. “The program would also welcome paint donations or vehicle parts to work on, such as hoods, doors or panels.”

But there’s an even more important reason for collision repair professionals to get involved in their local vo-tech programs – letting the students get to know you, what you do, what they could do, and how many great career options the industry offers. When it comes to retaining students’ interest in their future career, Helder says the biggest challenge is “communicating the benefits of a career in collision repair. Students have a narrow vision of the type of work that would  be completed – they see the field limited to painting and sanding, so they struggle to envision the creativity that can manifest. Because many shops in our county have closed, students don’t see the possibility of high-end work and wages that are available in neighboring regions where there are a number of great job opportunities.”

Baitzel Sr. agrees: “Many academics look down on the trades, even if we make more money than they do, and too often, schools are pushing students away from the trades. When one of my students won a state automotive contest and was invited to nationals, I was informed that administration was embarrassed and I could only take my student to nationals if no one knew we were going… After teaching for 45 years, I have too many stories like this. Shops need to get involved with local vo-techs so the school taxes they pay actually benefit their businesses.”

Truman urges all industry professionals to get involved with their local vo-tech schools because “We need these students for the future of our industry, and they can benefit from your experience! If you’re passionate about what you do, they’ll see that, and it will keep them interested. Tell them all the great things about collision repair and its possibilities, so we can ensure this industry stays great for future generations.”