Work-Based Learning Coordinator John Major wasn’t expecting the owner of Cole’s Collision to show up when he arranged for the company to talk with the Auto Body Repair class. It was definitely a banner day for the 12 students and instructors in the morning session.
John Cole, owner of Cole’s Collision, with 72 employees and four locations, was at the F. Donald Myers Education Center, along with General Manager Josh Jewett, who oversees all the stores.
“It’s an art to get the vehicle back to pre-accident condition,” Cole began by saying to the high school students. “You’re artists. That’s what we do. It’s hard work, you’re going to get dirty, and you’re constantly learning, so you need to have passion for what you do.”
Cole’s Collision has 72 employees and four locations. There are five or six core body technicians in each store, which Cole considers a specialized position. “We repair 650 cars per month – that’s an average of five cars per day at each location,” he said. “We could be doing more, but we’re limited by staff.”
Cole is always looking for motivated, ambitious employees. “You have an opportunity here,” he told the Auto Body students. “Care about what you do, care about the car, and care that you’re putting somebody back in the car that you’re working on. I always tell people, ‘fix a car like you’re putting your family in it. If you can’t do that, you can’t work for me.’”
Cole’s Collision opened in 2006, and they have not stopped growing. Cole said the business will continue to expand. “We’re going to build an 18,000 square foot shop that’s never been seen in the Capital District.”
“It’s a solid field,” said Cole. “People are always going to drive cars.”
“Get your foundational skills here at BOCES, then come in as a journeyman,” Cole advised. “We will partner you with a tech with 25-30 years of experience so you can learn from him. We have the best employees – they’re the Navy Seals of bodywork. If you have drive, you will excel, because if you help him, he’s going to be more productive, and he’ll invest more time in you and teach you more.”
“That’s how I learned,” confirmed Auto Body Instructor Brian Sheerer. “I hung out at an auto repair shop and picked it up from the old guys.”
Jewett said he looks for people who have a positive attitude and the ability to develop and learn.
“There are a wide variety of choices for you to become the best at what we need in the industry,” said Jewett, who started his career as an estimator in a dealership. “You can have a job forever if you’re on time, productive, and have a great work ethic.”
Both Cole and Jewett talked about the changing industry. “There has been an evolution in how cars are repaired because of electronics and sensors,” said Cole. Cars are built to zero tolerance today, which is a challenge.
A typical day at a Cole’s Collision Center consists of writing estimates, problem solving for a particular vehicle or insurance company. They pre-wash every vehicle and map it by recording mileage, current condition, and unrelated damage. The Body Team then measures almost every vehicle on a special machine. “There may be damage you can’t even see,” said Jewett.
“If you Google ‘car-o-tronic’ and ‘car-o-liner,’ you’ll see the best tools in the industry to repair vehicles,” said Cole. Car-o-liner is expensive, but it allows Cole’s employees to take measurements they were never able to capture before, and it helps them repair the vehicle and reassemble it the way it would have been assembled in the factory.
The Body Tech Team then disassembles the vehicle, makes structural repairs that may include spot welding, and reassembles the vehicle. “New metals are coming out that you can’t weld anymore because it decreases the strength of the metal alloy,” said Cole. “What I did as a technician 36 years ago is wrong today. Now I get a notification if there is a new metal, and I take a class to get trained and certified. It’s a constant learning process.”
After the structural damage is repaired, the Paint Team takes over. A prepper gets the vehicle ready for painting, which is done by a painter. Then the vehicle goes to the detail team.
“It’s very process oriented,” said Cole. “I developed the process and Josh polices it.”
“The true art is being an effective repairer,” said Cole, who said his business is one of the few flat-rate shops left. His employees are paid for what they produce, not for what they punch on a time card. “Most of the repairers at Cole’s make 150% of the hourly rate,” he said.
“You get instant gratification in this business,” said Jewett. “You accomplished something that you can be proud of.”
One of the students in the class asked about safety and if everyone is required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE). Cole replied that safety is number one with everything.
“I have scars on my eyes,” Cole said. “When I was young, we all thought we were invincible. We wore safety glasses that were cool, because we were cool, but they weren’t the best protection. Now I wear a whole shield to protect my face. Don’t be stupid. This is your body and your health and your life.”
The Body Team wears latex gloves, the Paint Team wears nitrile gloves, everyone in the paint booth wears masks, and every employee wears safety glasses whenever they pick up a tool. They also wear earmuffs when grinding or hammering. Cole’s Collision uses lifts with proper locks and processes in place, so if something goes wrong, no one gets hurt.
“We have a safe work environment,” said Cole. “We emphasize teamwork, respect, and looking out for the next guy. That’s our culture. People who display anger don’t work here anymore. People who take too much time off don’t work here because it has a negative impact on the team, and, ultimately, the customer. People who are late don’t work here anymore. We know within the first two to three weeks of a person’s probation period whether or not they’re a good fit.”
Another student asked what kind of education a Cole’s employee should have. Cole said he looks at people who come out of auto body programs because they know the language and have already demonstrated they have an interest in cars. He looks for people who have an aggressive work ethic. They like all employees, even estimators, to have hands-on experience.
Once hired, Cole’s Collision pays for further education through I-CAR, the Inter-Industry Conference on Auto Collision Repair. Cole’s employees are trained and certified Platinum designation. “All our shops are I-CAR Gold Class, which is the highest role-relevant training achievement recognized by the collision repair industry. We all have to keep up on our training.”
One of the students asked what importance math, English language arts, and communication skills have at Cole’s Collision. “They are absolutely critical,” said Cole. “You need to figure out how to use millimeters. And if you don’t have good communication skills, you drop the ball on customer service.”
Jewett said: “Technicians have to relay information to the estimator, and they have to discuss questions of repair or replace when they come up with a repair plan. We communicate with rental car companies, insurance companies, and customers every day.”
He also talked about how modern methods of communication remove emotion, so it’s easy for messages to be misinterpreted: “It’s important that you choose your words when you email or text so the person reading it understands.”
The pride and enthusiasm Cole and Jewett have for their work is contagious and inspiring. We at WSWHE BOCES are grateful they shared their knowledge, insight, and passion with us.