Frank Todaro and other area collision shop owners are looking for a few good men – and women – to fill their ranks.
“The whole industry in auto body, talk to anyone in the United States, there’s a massive shortage,” Todaro said. “We have to get the youngsters back into it.”
So local shop owners met to come up with a plan.
“We all decided to sit down as a group, not competitors, and say we need to do something about this,” said Todaro, the owner of Collision Masters. “We got involved with the schools to see if we can motivate the schools to get the children during high school back into the hands-on.”
Around the same time, Erie 1 BOCES was looking for a way to increase participation in its two-year collision repair program, where enrollment dipped from 45 in the 2011-12 school year to 29 three years later. There were 35 students in the program last year, compared to 142 in the auto technician program.
The shop owners, members of the Western New York chapter of I-CAR, the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair, met with BOCES.
As a result of the collaboration, eight students in collision repair programs at Erie 1 BOCES got their start making money in the business as part of a new paid pre-apprenticeship program this summer. The students worked at Carubba Collision, Gabe’s Collision, Joe Basil Chevrolet, West Herr and Collision Masters.
“The big thing was to lose the stigma that some people had about the collision industry being a dingy, dirty place,” said Bill Peffer, who teaches collision repair at the Kenton Career and Technical Center.
Signing on to the program was a natural move for Todaro, who is a graduate of the Harkness Career and Technical Center.
He employed Abigale “Abby” Lutz, a 17-year-old Cleveland Hill High School senior who also goes to Harkness. Abby, who worked three days a week, was the only female working in his garage.
“She caught on really quick, she’s got a good eye,” he said.
He talked to the guys before she came, to make sure they would make her feel at home. “They did that. They’re high-fiving now, this is good. They love her. She’s like one of the guys,” he said.
And Todaro got to catch up with his former teacher, Bob Verso, who also teaches Abby.
“She’s the type of kid who wants to learn everything,” Verso said. “She’s not afraid to do anything. She’s an intelligent young lady.”
Abby comes by cars naturally, too. When she graduated from preschool, she announced she wanted to be a race car driver, recalled her mother, Kim. Her grandfather raced cars, her father has hot rods, and she grew up going to Lancaster Speedway.
“I’ve always loved cars. I love the speed of cars,” she said. She also likes drawing, and when she went on her first tour of the Harkness Center in eighth grade, she discovered she could combine the two and paint cars.
Abby, the youngest of five children, alternated jobs at Collision Masters, from tear down to painting and detail work.
“I love learning how a car is built, how it is taken apart,” she said. “You have to paint with the shape of the car.”
She said she doesn’t consider herself a “girlie-girl,” because she loves cars, but that’s OK .
“I can’t wait to graduate and work in a shop and go to business for college at night to open up my own shop,” she said.
Verso and Peffer, his counterpart at the Kenton Career and Technical Center, often run into former students at collision shops.
Experienced technicians in the industry can earn more than $100,000 a year.
“I have a lot of guys out there making six figures,” Peffer said. “You don’t walk out my door making that kind of living, but you can make a very good living walking out my door.”
But to Abby, the work is not about the money right now. “If I didn’t get paid, I wouldn’t care, honestly,” she said. “It’s the fact of me being here and having the opportunity of learning from it.”