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VIP Tires & Service, based in Auburn, has launched a hiring incentive that offers entry-level technicians free access to carts full of starter tools — which they will own if they stay with the company for 12 months.
“We are firmly committed to mentoring the current and next generation of automotive professionals, making sure that they have all of the tools — literally and figuratively — to serve their customers well,” said Tim Winkeler, VIP’s president and CEO.
VIP started the tool cart program to help recruit and retain entry-level technicians. All installation technicians — old and new — can opt into the program and gain access to starter tools from day one on the job, or take part in a reimbursement program if they already have tools. A year after signing up for the program, technicians can keep their tools if they are still working for the company.
Launched in April, the program is active in all VIP locations, which currenty number 69. The value of the cart and tools is roughly $2,000, and includes basics such as a Milwaukee impact wrench that's needed by technicians.
The idea for the program came from experienced technicians with the company, Winkeler told Mainebiz.
“It’s a pretty cool story,” he said. “We do an annual employee survey and then our leadership team hits the road every February and we meet with all our employees, in groups of 15 to 20, and share with them the results of the survey.”
The meetings — held across VIP’s footprint in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts — last several hours and take about four weeks in all. The goal is to get employee feedback on the surveys.
“We’ve been doing it for 10 years now,” he said. “We have an open-door policy throughout the year. But this is an opportunity to get everyone away from their busy stores and help us come up with improvements for the company.”
Over the last few years, a hot topic has been the need to recruit more entry-level technicians.
The problem? A lot of people who try out for the job don’t own tools.
“In our industry, technicians have to own their own tools,” Winkeler said. “A lot of our experienced technicians said, ‘You guys should offer a starter toolbox' and essentially give it to them when they start and then have a process by which they can earn ownership.”
The company had the budget this year to roll out the concept as a tool cart program. The carts — standard in any automotive shop — are loaded with tools such as various types of specialized wrenches and electric impact "guns" used to quickly remove lug nuts.
The company owns the cart and tools for the first 12 months. Then it becomes the property of the employee.
The program helps VIP compete with other industries, such as retail and food service shops that pay comparable wages but don’t require tools.
At VIP, the wage for entry-level technicians is $18 to $21 per hour, depending on the area. “Someone brand-new with no experience can make that in other industries without the need to invest in tools,” said Winkeler. “We’re trying to take that barrier down.”
Additional retention incentives include classroom learning, hands-on training and industry certification, which VIP provides at no cost.
“We have many stories of entry-level technicians who, within three years, have gotten enough experience and enough certifications and now they’ve essentially doubled their earnings,” he said. “That’s the type of opportunity we believe our industry overall offers. And at VIP, we love it when someone gets on the fast track.”
Many VIP master certified technicians surpass the $100,000 annual threshold, according to the company.
VIP this year has about 180 entry-level technicians, including quite a few who were already with the company before the program started. The latter have already invested their own money into tools, so the program instead reimburses them for any additional tools they buy.
“That’s a retention benefit,” said Winkeler.
The rollout is still underway.
“The rollout has been manager by manager, district by district,” he said.
Of VIP’s 180 entry-level technicians, 100 to 120 are in the program. Others are rolling into the program and the company continues to hire. The pace of the rollout is limited by a supply crunch — there just weren’t enough carts or tools to meet VIP’s orders all at once. District managers are working with VIP’s supplier to source carts and tools.
VIP’s investment in the program so far — at a cost of roughly $2,000 each for 180 workers — will be about $360,000 once those employees are equipped.
The outcome won't be known for a while, but attrition has already slowed.
“We look forward to the tool cart program growing exponentially in the months ahead and into 2024,” Winkeler said.
VIP Tires & Service traces its roots back through two origin stories.
John P. Quirk, VIP’s executive chairman, is a third-generation owner in the tires and service business. His grandfather, Edward S. Quirk, founded Quirk Tire in Watertown, Mass., in 1926.
VIP Discount Auto Centers was founded in Lewiston in 1958.
John took over Quirk Tire in 1985, grew the business nearly 10-fold and acquired VIP Discount Auto in 2001. He renamed the combined entity VIP Parts, Tires & Service.
In 2012 the company divested its retail auto parts business and renamed the firm VIP Tires & Service.
Today, VIP is northern New England’s largest privately held automotive service provider and tire dealer. Its 69 locations are up from 40 in 2001. The workforce has grown from about 490 in March 2020 to 650 today.
Two major factors are driving the company’s growth.
“Our culture is such that it’s a very people-focused company,” said Winkeler.
The bigger picture is that vehicle prices have skyrocketed in recent years, driving down new-car sales as more people opt to repair rather than buy new.
The average age of passenger cars in the U.S. in 2022 was 13.1 years old, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In 2012 it was 11.3 and in 2002 it was 9.8.
“Every year, the average age continues to get older and older because people tend to hang onto their cars longer, which is good for our industry,” he said.