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Kirmac filling trade skill gap

Employers such as Kirmac get creative to make sure new hires have necessary training

In an attempt to address a widening skills gap in its industry, Kirmac Collision Services has introduced a new on-the-job training program.

Kirmac, which has two locations in Burnaby, hired on director of operations Peter Vajda about six months ago to start the program.

"My position, and the program itself, have basically been to face market challenges," Vajda says. "It's getting very difficult to attract quality employees."

Two market trends are creating a dual challenge for the industry, he explains - the majority of the workforce will be retiring in the next 20 years, but there are fewer students going into the skilled journeymen trades.

"Kids today are not interested in entering the skilled trades, when we're talking about the shop floor," he says. "Finding people that are really qualified to meet the expectations of customers today is really difficult, so we really needed to put an emphasis on hiring the right people."

So Vajda developed an on-the-job training program for the company.

Kirmac has two training streams, he says - shop floor employees hired out of local community colleges using a journeymen/ apprentice training model; and front office staff trained by mentors within the company, with more experienced employees working with less experienced employees via a management leadership program.

Vajda has developed a good relationship with Vancouver Community College in particular, he says, as he worked with them through his previous employer to arrange on-the-job training.

"I can go and sit down with instructors at VCC and find out who the best students are, and hire right out of the schools," he says.

"If they're going to be a Red Seal (automotive) painter or a Red Seal body (repair technician), they're going to go back to school every year for five weeks to do apprenticeship training," Vajda explains, adding that it takes about four to five years to become a journeyman, if the apprentice completes the required hours for each level within a year.

The Kirmac program helps students get necessary hours towards their journeyman's certificate and return to work after they've completed each level of apprenticeship training, he explains.

The program has had a great response from management and employees, he says, adding it is quite innovative for the collision industry.

"In this stage of the game, I'd say we're very progressive in doing it this way," Vajda says. "I haven't heard of any others in our industry doing it like this."

The program has about 12 participants thus far, according to Vajda.

And Kirmac is hiring continually for its two Burnaby locations - at 5180 Lougheed Hwy. and 6692 Royal Oak Ave., he adds.

"We're always looking for talent, especially in Burnaby," Vajda says.

The company plans to expand the training program into the United States, as well.

Kirmac currently has 10 locations in Canada and 12 locations in the U.S.

"We've been very successful in the U.S. Actually, we're very proud of that," he says.

The current skills gap isn't just a problem for companies such as Kirmac, but for other industries as well, according to Sandra Miles, president of Miles Employment Group.

After the recession, employers expected it to be easier to find the exact skill set they were looking for when hiring, but that hasn't turned out to be the case, Miles explains.

"What we're seeing is employers want people job-ready, and they don't want to train," she says.

As many small and mid-size companies cut their workforces during the recession, they don't have the resources or time to train new hires now that they're getting busy again, Miles explains.

"They want talent, but they're not willing or able to support on-boarding new talent," she says.

This had led to a lot of unfilled jobs in the market, due to a lack of training, she says.

But there are ways to bring on new tal-ent that aren't costly, she says.

Simple things like on-boarding orientation programs - programs to help new hires transition into positions, including having proper supplies and equipment ready for them - are a good start, according to Miles.

Mentoring programs are also a good way to fill skill gaps, she adds.

"An internal mentoring program can go a long way, where you pair a seasoned, trusted expert in your company to mentor a new employee into that role," she says.

Employers can also widen their expectations and look for complementary skill sets when hiring, Miles points out.

"A really good thing to be flexible on," she says, "is that skill sets are transferable, and they don't need to be from your industry."

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