COVID-19 changed the hiring landscape for shop owners. That’s the reality.
Jason Nastasi knows this just as well as any operator. He opened his first Express Oil Change and Tire Engineers shop in May 2020, just as the pandemic became widespread. Like others, he was looking to make his own success in life as an entrepreneur.
“I made the jump to starting my own shop because I wanted to build my own legacy,” Nastasi says. “I wanted to leave something behind for my kids.”
Hiring has been a constant challenge for the entirety of Nastasi’s shop ownership, he says. The COVID influence has certainly played a part. As a smaller startup, Nastasi had to work for every new hire. One fundamental challenge was getting prospective employees in the door to assess their customer service skills.
“Due to COVID, I couldn’t get people to come into the shop to meet face to face,” Nastasi says. “It is really important that I meet someone in person.”
He’s certainly not alone. Operators who participated in the 2022 NOLN Operator Survey overwhelmingly commented that finding workers was among the biggest challenges—if not the overall top challenge—of ownership in recent years.
Bob Cooper, president of the coaching and training outfit Elite Worldwide, agrees that the hiring landscape has changed. The pandemic caused people to gravitate toward remote work and rethink what lines of work they wanted.
“The reality of it is whether it be entry level, oil change people or skilled technicians, that pool is thin of people who have that attitude and ethics,” Cooper says.
But he sees an opportunity in this shift. It’s a chance for operators to become more proactive to find the right candidates for their operation—those who have the core skills to become great technicians and more.
Creating Great Technicians
One attitude shift that Cooper would like to see among shop owners is that they aren’t always searching for a technician from the outset. They’re searching for great people who can become technicians.
“Most shop owners will tell you that they don’t have time to grow their own apprentices,” he says. “But what’s intriguing is that the majority of shop owners will tell you they started on the end of a broom, too.”
Quick lube operators have great opportunities in this area, because they’re often looking for less experienced candidates with good qualities. Cooper says he looks for attitude, aptitude, and ethics. With those boxes checked, a good manager can create a solid pathway for success.
Nastasi says that he’s proactive at the local high schools to talk to students about automotive careers. The pandemic didn’t change the need for skilled trade workers.
“I want these kids to know that they don’t need to go to college to make good money,” Nastasi says. “Blue-collar jobs are here, they aren’t going anywhere, and people can make a lot of money in the trades.”
Nastasi is also targeting workers in certain fields who have the fundamental skill set he’s seeking. Instead of focusing on technician experience for all hires, Nastasi prioritized other traits in employees. These traits are personability and customer service.
“When I hire, I am looking for the old waiters and bartenders,” says Nastasi. “I want the people with real customer service experience.”
In Nastasi’s view, it is easier to train someone with good customer service in oil changes than it is to train a technician to have good customer service. That’s exactly why Nastasi offers a robust employee training program, enabling someone to walk off of the street and become an oil and lube technician.
From there, it’s important to keep a pathway ahead of each employee.
“My employees have advancement and clear career progression,” Nastasi says. “Realizing that they can make more money and get better at their careers pulls employees to my shop over a large chain.”
Lean on Culture
Whether you’re looking for someone who’s new to the industry or someone with automotive experience, there’s one factor that needs to be in place: a great company culture. This has never been more important than in the COVID environment, when employees are reconsidering what they value in their jobs or careers.
“People don’t go to work for companies,” Cooper says. “They go to work for people.”
Nastasi wants this to be immediately noticeable by customers and potential hires when they come into the shop. Everyone is talking, joking, and enjoying themselves while maintaining professionalism. Those kinds of impressions are huge boosts for hiring.
“If I can just get people into the shop to see that culture, I can hire them easily,” Nastasi says. “Working in a fun place with a good culture beats working at home alone all day.”
That culture is the bridge that attracts employees with no experience, but it can also lure more skilled workers away from other operations.
Marketing Your Culture
Cooper says that years ago, he had a moment of enlightenment. It was a new way to look at how operators can attract skilled technicians.
The basic premise is that the skilled technicians that you want aren’t out there on the job search. Most often, they’re at other shops. The challenge is getting their attention.
“You don’t reach them, you reach their social circle,” Cooper says. “You reach their family and friends and let them do the work for you.”
Everything you’ve read so far in this article sets up this strategy. First, operators need to define what qualities they want in prospective employees and what kind of shop culture fosters those qualities. Don’t breeze through this step, either. Cooper says that it took a year for his team to finalize a mission statement.
“We're really big supporters of mission statements,” he says.
Once that’s set, it’s time to approach hiring like a marketing project. And the goal is reaching your target hire’s social circles.
For example, Cooper says that you could set up a radio advertisement for an open shop position. The core message in that radio ad isn’t necessarily the skills you need from the employee, but the values you want the employee to have. The ad says that a shop is looking for a skilled technician who puts people before money and always does the right thing.
Your target applicant might not hear the commercial, but members of their social circle will. It could be family or friends, and they’ll make the recommendation to your target hire, because they want to see their loved one working for an upstanding organization.
Cooper says that he first tested this strategy out with a client who had a go-getter attitude, and it worked great.
“Not only did he get leads, but the service bays filled up,” he says.
Invest in Your Core Group
Many hiring strategies come with a reminder to always keep some focus on the existing staff. Ensure their needs are met and that they are benefitting from the culture that was set up to attract outside hires.
Cooper says that it’s an employee’s heart that will leave the business long before their toolbox does. And it’s up to operators to reach out early to stop that process.
The first step that Nastasi takes in this process is getting to know not only a new hire, but also their families and loved ones. By doing this, Nastasi turns his employees into family.
“I strengthen that atmosphere by taking care of my employees as if they were family,” says Nastasi. “If they are having issues at home, we take care of them by giving them the time and support they need.”
Part of this support comes through incentivizing career advancement. Nastasi never wants his employees to end up in a dead-end career. At Nastasi’s shops, his employees are incentivized to move up in the auto industry. This is accomplished by paying for employees’ certification tests and offering bonuses when they pass.
In a circular way, this contributes back to the recruitment process. Create a great culture for your current employees, and others are going to want to come join. It’s as simple as that.