The scarcity of expertise among spray painters is a handicap for body shop businesses wanting to expand their operations. It is also a major obstacle for entrepreneurs in emerging economies like China and Russia wishing to exploit a fast growing demand for car repair services among an increasing number of automobile owners.
Furthermore it is a big drawback for coating manufacturers. They are finding that new products and systems incorporating expensively developed technologies are not being applied properly by refinishing painters. Even worse, some body shop owners are being deterred from buying them because their staff does not have sufficient expertise to use them.
"Our customers are often telling us that our new products or systems are very difficult to work with because they do not have people who are qualified enough to operate the processes," said Urban Johansson, head of global training at BASF Coatings, a leader in the worldwide market for refinish paints.
"This is a response we are getting not just in developing markets but all over the world," he explained. "The level of knowledge in body shops is generally very low at the moment, even in parts of the Europe and the U.S.
"One of the problems is that there is a scarcity or complete absence in some countries of teachers in vocational colleges able to teach students in paint and refinish processes to a level needed by body shops," Johansson continued. "The other difficulty is that the body shops themselves provide inadequate on-the-job training particularly in new technologies and processes."
Another stumbling block for coatings companies in the refinish sector is a lack of uniformity in the content of training courses. Even in countries like Germany, which has a long-established car repair industry, comprising approximately 4,500 body shops taking in 2,000 apprentices annually, there are major differences regionally.
"The trainees [in Germany] are often instructed by teachers from a different field, for example by electrical engineers or decorators," said Michael Uhlenbrock, national head trainer in Germany for Glasurit, BASF's car refinish coatings brand.
In the face of these skills shortages, BASF's strategy has been to aim for radical changes in the education of body shop staff by implementing a "Train the Trainer" program, which embraces not just repair businesses but teachers in vocational colleges.
As a result, it believes that in the provision of training services it is now well ahead of its major competitors, like DuPont, PPG and AkzoNobel, while its strategy strengthens the image and awareness of the Glasurit brand.
To give more impetus to its program, BASF opened in September a new $3.5 million ($5 million) Refinish Competence Center (RCC) at its coating headquarters in Muenster-Hiltrup, Germany. The project brings all of Glasurit's centrally located training team, made up of trainers, administrators and customer service representatives, into one building. It also accommodates the products of 24 companies providing body shop equipment and accessories.
The educational operation of the refinish business currently has seven global trainers, 150 national trainers and 300 technicians in 65 countries. With the help of 46 training centres around the world, 10,000 people take part in Glasurit courses, seminars and workshops annually. The Muenster-Hiltrup RCC unit has been having on average 3,000 participants in its educational activities a year. But the new building's capacity will be much higher with 2,000 people expected to use the global center before the end of this year.
"Glasurit is currently the leading brand for automotive refinish products," said Christoph Hansen, head of BASF's automotive refinish business. "The new competence center will enable us to strengthen our position further."
The RCC will play a prominent role in BASF's plans for forging closer links between vocational colleges and the body shop sector, as well as between refinish businesses and Glasurit's training teams.
"Technologies in this industry have been developing rapidly but colleges have been unable to keep up with the changes," says Johansson. "There has been little exchange of information between the colleges and industry, which can be put right by having closer ties between the two. Centers like the new RCC building can help bring the suppliers of coatings, equipment and accessories, the body shops themselves and the colleges closer together."
BASF enters into contracts with colleges under which in return for paint and other supplies they ensure that their teachers attend the company's training seminars and take advantage of its other support services such as the provision of updated technical information.
The company has also been drawing up curriculum for colleges. In the emerging economies, such as Russia and China, it is helping introduce specific training programs for technical schools.
"There is no training of body shop skills in technical colleges in Russia at the moment," said Wladimir Zhizhilew, BASF Coatings' technical sales support manager in Moscow. "We have developed training programs for Russian colleges. We have a pilot project with one technical school in central Moscow which will produce 10-15 qualified body shop painters annually, which we expect to be increased to 50-100 annually within a few years."
BASF is also following a similar policy in China where it has recently opened a fourth training center, while it has also set up new training units in Iran and Egypt.
Once a framework is created which ensures a steady flow of qualified students for employment in the refinishing sector, the next priority is the establishment of a system of permanent education.
"Outside the countries currently without the means for proper training at the technical school level, the main requirement is a basis for continuous learning within the body shops," said Hendrik Franke, manager of the RCC at Muenster-Hiltrup. "Our national trainers come back here twice a year to be updated about new knowledge and also improved teaching methods. It is then their responsibility to disseminate that information through their training teams to body shops in their countries."
BASF's objective is to have an international information network, of which training colleges and centers are only one part. The rest includes websites, conferences, seminars and communication links with its equipment and accessories partners for the distribution of information on new body shop products, processes and technologies.