Revving up interest

Kirmac Collision takes new approach to attract younger skilled workers
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/13/2012

When it comes to fixing cars for a living, young people just aren’t interested. They don’t see it as a good career move, according to Peter Vajda, director of operations at Kirmac Collision Services, an automotive collision repair company based in Coquitlam, B.C.

“We’re not the only company that is having problems attracting skilled trades — it goes across the board,” he says. “There’s not a lot of new people entering the skilled trades in general and that translates into a problem for everybody that employs those people.”

Attracting workers to the skilled trades is a widespread issue that affects a variety of industries such as construction, oil and gas, and transportation. In speaking to contacts at local community colleges, Vajda says he’s heard the average skilled worker in the industry is in his late 40s.

“I don’t know if it’s us not doing a good job of presenting it as a fulfilling career path — I think that’s a big part of it,” he says. “I don’t think that the youth of today really understand how fulfilling a career in the trades could be. The Europeans do a much better job of promoting entry and communicating the value of entering skilled trades.”

Misconceptions could also be part of the problem, as people might feel the knowledge sector is more promising.

“A skilled tradesman can be a very, very lucrative career — I don’t think people have any clue that that’s actually the case,” says Vajda.

And developed countries have moved from manufacturing-based economies to service-based economies, so people in North America don’t think manufacturing skilled trades is something Canada does well, he says. Plus, a fall in the manufacturing industry, as seen in Ontario, could make people feel the industry is not a healthy career path.

Many of Kirmac’s employees have been there 20 to 25 years, which means they are nearing the end of their careers.

“That’s one of the challenges we’re going to face — all of these great skilled workers we’ve had for so long are eventually going to be retiring,” says Vajda. “As a person that’s always been involved in operations, (recruiting workers has) always been the toughest part of my job… and it’s getting tougher.”

Taking a new approach

To entice more workers, Kirmac has remodelled its approach to recruiting and hiring repair technicians, customer service representatives, estimators and managers. The company has about 200 employees in Canada and the United States, with 13 locations.

Probably the most important step is rebuilding relationships with community colleges — such as the automotive trade school at Vancouver Community College — and high schools that have apprenticeship programs, says Vajda. Instead of interviewing job candidates one at a time, for weeks, it’s about going to a local school to find the best students.

“If you want to build a business, the most important thing you can do is build relationships with your potential customers and I use the exact same approach for recruiting employees — it all boils down to relationships,” says Vajda.

“Ideally, hiring out of training institutions is probably my preferred method of recruiting skilled workers.”

Recruitment is also done online and through industry contacts.

“The collision and automotive industry is a very tight-knit community, so when a company is in an expansionary phase or when somebody’s hiring, everybody knows about it within the industry,” he says.

As part of its new approach, the automotive collision repair company has also done a complete assessment and clearly outlined the ideal Kirmac employee. Instead of focusing on industry-specific experience, qualities such as customer service and a passion for the industry are considered important, along with personality.

People are not exposed to cars in the same fashion the baby boomers were, says Sean McIntosh, manager at Kirmac.

“Advances in technology have made servicing your own vehicle more rare. We can no longer assume potential hires have spent most of their childhood working on cars. What our most successful new hires share with previous generations is that they have a passion for cars.”

The traditional approach to recruitment has been to try to gain somebody from inside the industry with experience — and Kirmac still does that, to a certain extent, says Vajda. But to operate at a higher level, the company is far better off finding somebody with the right personality and the right motivation, not necessarily the right skill set.

“The right skill set can definitely be taught and it’s actually more beneficial for us to teach that skill set because we know the candidate has learned it right,” he says.

Most candidates go through two or three in-person interviews before they meet with Vajda but gauging personality is tough, he says. So Kirmac is taking a new approach to further test the waters.

Before, the company offered an entry level customer service position that was not a stepping stone into other jobs. Now, that position is a place to put potential candidates for management positions, with 11 positions at 11 stores considered leadership development positions.

“The people do everything that a customer service rep would do but rather than that being the only purpose for that position, we’re actually trying to fill the position with candidates that may fit into our future extension plans,” he says.

“That allows us to attract a higher calibre of employee. Because of the potential of the position and because of the opportunity, they’re far more engaged on one level (and) we’re more likely to attract a higher-level candidate to an entry level position.”

It’s very difficult to assess a candidate in job interviews and with psychological personality testing, says Vajda, so the leadership development program “allows us to have an extended interview process and development process where we can identify the good candidates.”

The assistant manager or manager must also be able to write proper estimates for insurance companies, which is a skill that usually takes one to two years to develop. Eighty-five cents of every dollar made at Kirmac comes from insurance companies, says Vajda, “so we really need to develop a highly technical skill set and the ability to write an estimate in any candidate that could potentially become a manager.”

New automotive workers also become apprentices and are often trained by an experienced journeyman — it’s a successful approach, says Vajda.

“It’s an ongoing model of learning and teaching so if somebody shows a passion for cars or for this industry, if they have experience or they don’t have experience, it’s not really that critical because we can do a big part of training in-house. And apprenticeship programs allow us to send the hires to training every year for four or five weeks.”

Having been in business for 38 years, turnover is less of a problem at Kirmac than some competitors but it’s still an issue, he says. In terms of highly skilled legacy employees, there is very low turnover, but when it comes to entry level positions and new hires, there’s a higher level — so corporate culture is important.

“You can attract somebody with money but you can’t keep them with money,” he says. “We can’t discount (that) compensation plays a role but I really think that culture, more than anything else, is what’s going to keep an employee for that long.”

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