September 9, 2014

Crash car repair gets the high tech treatment at FTCC

By Gregory Phillips, The Fayetteville Observer, N.C.

Sept. 09–In 2014, repairing a crashed car takes an understanding of chemistry and metallurgy, and the smarts to recognize that every make and model is different.

“It’s no longer Jimbo and Billy Bob’s bait shop and collision repair,” said Paul Gage. “A technician today is an engineer. They’re engineering a car to respond correctly to collision energy.”

Gage, an industry veteran, is leading a new associate degree program in advanced collision repair at Fayetteville Technical Community College. The curriculum was drafted by Gage and others in the industry to qualify graduates to work on vehicles in an era of rapid and dramatic changes in vehicle design and repair.

The collision industry faces a critical shortage, with too few qualified graduates filling jobs left open by an aging technician population, according to the nonprofit Collision Repair Education Foundation.

“All of our technicians are starting to age out,” Gage said. “It’s truly getting to a crisis point. They’ve had no place to go for talent. They have stolen from each other, and there’s nobody left to steal from.”

The inaugural class, which started about three weeks ago, already has well-paying jobs waiting upon graduation, Gage said.

Gage said the industry has an image problem.

“It’s a real career,” he said. “It’s not just a job.”

Larry Keen, president of FTCC, said he sought input from the industry after local car dealers and body shops told him about the labor shortage.

“We looked at what we were doing and decided we were going to align it with what was needed for the 21st century,” he said. “It gave an avenue to an industry sector that has a future, rather than one that’s a dead end.”

Guaranteed jobs

FTCC has kept its existing one-year diploma program, which Gage said is geared toward car restoration hobbyists.

The degree program is career-oriented and includes nine certifications from the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair, known as I-CAR. Graduates are certified in refinishing, structural collision repair in various metals, welding and estimation, plus they earn an adjuster’s license.

Industry pay is based on qualifications. Gage said a graduate can expect to make a starting salary of about$45,000. Fayetteville’s best qualified and most experienced technicians make upward of $100,000, he said.

“They can take these skills anywhere in the U.S. and get a job,” Gage said.

The first class is four weeks into the program. FTCC will add a class of as many as 20 students every eight weeks until the program reaches its 160 capacity.

Starting in January, the students will have a custom-fitted, 21,000-square-foot building to work in, complete with prep stations and a paint booth, in a layout that can be easily reconfigured as the industry trends evolve.

“It’s been set up so it will never go out of date,” Gage said.

Cumberland County is seeking a loan to replenish the $3 million it took from reserves to pay for the $3 millionbuilding in a business park on Santa Fe Drive earlier this year. The college also is spending about $450,000 on improvements.

A changing industry

The program’s first group — Gage calls it Team One — spends its three hours of instruction each day in a regular classroom, but it is already unusual. There are no textbooks.

Gage said the course is not about rote memorization but how to source and research information about repairing various models.

“The minute you think you’ve committed it to memory, in a year the car has changed and the information will be out of date,” he said.

Gage was 9 years old when he painted his first car with his dad. At 46, he has been in the industry for 25 years, working in paint sales and technical support, as an insurance adjuster, a collision repair production manager and a training consultant.

He is an animated and engaging teacher.

“The beauty of this industry,” he said toward the end of a class on industry trends, “there’s not a computer that can ever replace you.”

The 17 students are a mix of new high school graduates, laid-off workers looking to retrain and veterans. Several are from the National Guard, funneled through a state initiative to tackle high unemployment among former guard members.

The motivations and interests are varied, too.

Lonnie Brown, the first to enroll, is a welder. Jordan West is a former art student who designed the logo for the program’s uniforms. Jonathan Stender wants to race cars. Tyler Schaub wants to paint them.

“There’s a lot of career opportunities out there for us,” said Tia Early, a National Guard veteran.

She is interested in the insurance adjustment side or owning her own shop.

“That’s where I’m trying to go,” she said.

Gerber Collision and Glass, a national auto body company with more than 200 locations, has pledged to hire the program’s first batch of graduates.

Brent Watson is general manager of the Gerber body shop on Raeford Road.

“We’ve had a shortage of technicians for years,” he said. “A lot of younger people don’t seem to have the interest to come into the automotive field. The pool of people is small, and it’s still shrinking.”

Team One is excited about expanding that pool.

“You’re guaranteed a job when you get out,” said Michael Kamaka, a high school graduate in the class. “That’s enough said. The most stressful thing about school is to find a job at the end of it.”

To find out more or to register for an upcoming class, go to or call 678-8473.