No wonder then that Cole’s Collision Centers President Josh Jewett is glad that work on the 12,000-square-foot building’s addition is continuing. “We’re putting on 5,000 square feet,” says Jewett, seated at a round table in a small room off the lobby. Though there are five employees currently working on cars in the shop behind him, “we’ll have room to house nine to 10 technicians after the addition is built.”
More technicians is the point, says Jewett, who oversees 90 employees across all five of the Cole’s Collision shops in the Capital Region. About five years ago, even before the coronavirus pandemic struck, auto repair personnel were in short supply. And that’s when Jewett came up with a plan: a mentor-apprenticeship program.
“That was something that I developed myself,” says Jewett, 39, an original member of the ever-expanding Cole’s franchise along with partner and owner John Cole.
Aware of the constant need for employees who don’t work remotely—“This isn't a job you can do from home,” he says—Jewett came up with the idea of teaching and grooming auto technicians in-house.
“We (look for) the right employee. Hopefully, it’s somebody who already works for us. It could be somebody in our detail department or somebody who came in at an entry level-position or someone who has graduated from Hudson Valley (Community College) or a BOCES (apprenticeship program) student.”
If the chosen apprentice, working with an experienced technician, is still at the job after 90 days, Jewett administers a “test” of about 30 questions that he developed.
“It's not pass or fail,” says Jewett, whose father and two of his uncles were mechanics and ran their own gas stations back in the day. “It's more of a conversation. I’ll ask the questions, and in most cases, (the apprentice will) know the answer. If they don't, we're going to continue to talk about it. By the time they are done with the ‘test,’ they'll know all the answers.”
After that, “if they’re exceeding expectations, if they haven't had any callouts, if they've been an exemplary employee, we give them a minor monetary increase. I set aside a little increase in pay because, obviously, they're taking it seriously, and so are we.”
Soon after, Jewett will set up a meeting with the apprentice, the mentor, the store manager, and himself to assess the student’s progress. Most of the time, all will have gone well, and the apprentice will not have another evaluation for an additional 90 days, though no “test” will be administered then.
On the nine-month anniversary, Jewett administers a stricter exam.
“The test is based solely on standard procedures,” of which Cole’s has established its own across multiple repair disciplines, Jewett says. Again, the student will not be graded, “but the expectation is they're going to have the answers right. And then we'll work through it as far as what they don't know until they end up understanding everything, from our perspective.”
Another group roundtable follows.
“At that point, we're setting what the expectation is in the next 90 days,” Jewett says. “If the student is excelling again, I can give them a minor monetary increase as long as they're doing as expected. And then we'll look at it again at the one-year mark. By (then), we really want to start homing in on only what's missing.
“By that point, they should be very good at disassembly, reassembly, setting a car up on a frame bench, reading and understanding the estimates. Depending on the student, they might need more help on, let's say, doing finished body work or welding. At that point, we home in on what the specific need is. If it's welding, I'll have a professional come in and dedicate four hours to working directly with them.”
After a year, the apprentice should be knowledgeable about concepts such as mash (shortening of the vehicle length), sway (movement of the structure to the right or left of the center line), and inertia and be quite accomplished in a variety of skills. In addition, Cole’s provides its students full access to the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair (I-CAR) training program to help them prepare to become certified technicians.
Marcus Gettings, 22, of Troy, who graduated from HVCC’s auto body repair program only days before, is one of seven students currently engaged in Cole’s mentor-apprenticeship program. (Currently, 17 have completed it.)
“I wanted to come here before, but I didn’t think I'd be good enough,” says Gettings on the day a reporter visited the Clifton Park shop. “I (saw) how fast they’re moving, but after a while, I’ve kind of gotten used to the pace. I love it. I couldn’t ask for more.”
Though there have been some program washouts, Jewett sees the program as a win-win situation both for Cole’s and the apprentices.
“Ultimately, we’re investing in them,” he says. “We're paying them an hourly wage, but they're going to be getting an education while they’re here.”