Nearly two years ago, Charlie Gilchrist, then president of the National Automobile Dealers Association, warned that the biggest threat facing the industry was a shortage of qualified body shop technicians.
Even before Gilchrist sounded the alarm bells, Barton Ford in Suffolk, Va., was doing something about it.
The dealership has been teaming up with nearby schools to create a local talent pipeline that it’s using to keep its service department humming.
Barton Ford set up a paid internship program with the College and Career Academy at Pruden, a technical school about 4 miles away, and has hired at least six students from the school over the past three years. This month, the dealership partnered with Ford to donate a 2015 F-150 Platinum to the school so students would have a modern vehicle to practice repairs on during class.
The dealership also has assisted nearby Tidewater Community College, paying part of students’ tuition, donating tools and helping them attain necessary certifications.
“We want to make sure we support our local trade schools so we can grow our own from there,” Tracey Everitt, Barton Ford’s service manager, told Automotive News. “People don’t realize that being a technician is not just a job anymore, it’s definitely a career. It can start right there.”
The dealership, which employs 17 technicians, currently has three interns from the College and Career Academy at Pruden on the payroll; two work 40-hour weeks while a third works two days a week. The interns typically are paired with a trained technician and get to experience service work firsthand.
Connie Burgess, the school’s principal, said those experiences are key.
“It provides the workplace environment for the students to put into action what they’ve learned in the classroom,” she said. “It truly enriches the educational program for the students.”
The school offers two auto-related programs: automotive technology and auto body repair. The internships at Barton Ford typically take place near the end of their time at the school, potentially setting up employment opportunities afterward.
The dealership chose to donate a 2015 F-150 because it was relatively new but had enough miles on it to need a few basic repairs — giving students the ability to work on it immediately.
“When we took a tour of the center, we noticed the things they were working on were older and not as up-to-date as they needed to be,” Everitt said. “The best way to learn is hands-on.”
In a statement, the school said the pickup would “enhance our instructional program through facilitation of experiential learning opportunities, observation of modern automotive systems and contextualization of repairs and services to the current market.”
Barton wanted to donate the truck earlier this year, but the coronavirus pandemic froze those plans for months. The dealership’s service center has continued to operate throughout the pandemic and its techs have seen no slowdown in repair work, making the interns even more valuable.
Everitt said hiring students who have completed the program is beneficial because they know exactly what’s expected of them.
“It’s great for us because of the way they’ve been taught,” Everitt said. “They definitely are prepared mentally.”