Brandon Eckenrode, director of development of the Collision Repair Education Foundation, recently joined the CoatingsPro Interview Series to discuss the foundation’s goals, as well as overlaps within the coatings community. See below for a complete transcript.
The organization works to support school programs across the United States, in this instance bringing coatings to help improve appearances and safety of the repair shops.
For more information, visit www.collisioneducationfoundation.org.
Stephanie Chizik: Brandon, thanks so much for joining us today.
Brandon Eckenrode: Thank you for having me.
SC: Why don’t we start by you giving our listeners a bit of your background?
BE: I actually went to school for an English and journalism degree. Upon graduation — obviously the natural fit is the automotive industry when you have a journalism/English degree. I started off with a company called I-CAR, which produces training for the collision industry, and that industry includes all the companies that are involved with repairing our vehicles after an accident. It’s body shops, paint companies, tool companies — all those companies that are involved within that industry. I was in their marketing department for roughly eight years.
It was then when I joined with the Collision Repair Education Foundation, after I found I have a level of comfort in asking people for support of a charitable cause. The foundation was transforming into that charitable entity that it is now, so it seemed like a natural fit. To get paid to be doing something that you love to do and are comfortable doing, it seemed like a great fit.
SC: I bet you those are very specific skills for the role that you have now, and probably well-serving for you.
BE: Yes, especially this past year. As you can imagine, it was quite the interesting year to be a fundraiser because of everything that was going on and people closely watching their budgets. It’s actually no different than 2009, when I started with the foundation, because of the economic situation that was going on back then. It just means you have to get creative, and that’s something that I always welcome.
SC: Can you give us a little bit of background as far as what your current role is there with the Collision Repair Education Foundation?
BE: Because we are a large staff of four, trying to solve the national issue of the need for entry-level staff within the automotive industry — no different than a lot of the other technical trades — but my official title is director of development. I am the organization’s main industry liaison, so I’m out at industry conferences, events, and meetings trying to help get more companies involved in the work that we’re doing. But I also help facilitate any social media, marketing communications, PR, things like that. Again, with it being a small staff, we wear multiple hats. But we’ve been able to do some incredible things through a very generous industry.
SC: I can’t even remember how we met at this point, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was social media. That’s definitely an area that’s grown in a positive way, especially in the past year. It’s kept us all connected.
SC: I think that some of our listeners would be interested in knowing how your world and our world connect. Why does this pertain to the coatings world? There’s a certain angle to it that’s really interesting and would be great for us to know about.
BE: A little bit more background on the foundation, which I think will tie into what you mentioned. We’re a national 501(c)(3) charity. Our main goal is to support high school and college auto body repair or collision repair school programs, students, and instructors around the country. This is everything from a local high school, technical school, and they’re under our umbrella of support. The three areas that we focus on are trying to get students attracted to this industry and to these local school programs, supporting the programs themselves with donations, and then also the employment side of getting these students into the industry.
On the attraction piece, we’ve been doing this for several years, but obviously looking to expand our partnerships and collaborations. One of the things that we’re trying to do is help these instructors who are facing pretty limited program budgets. They barely have enough budgets to be able to provide the tools, the equipment, the supplies they need to run their programs. We want to make sure that these programs have a professional learning environment. That means students having uniforms and these programs not looking like the dungeon-looking atmosphere they sometimes have because these instructors are stretched so thin with their budgets that they can’t afford to be worried about how their program looks. They’re just trying to keep the programs operating.
What we’re trying to do, and had some success, is things like making sure these programs have brand-new coated floors as opposed to the floors that they’ve had since the program opened many, many years ago. A fresh coat of paint on the walls. Things like that, where we can build partnerships with companies to make sure these local schools — again, there’s roughly about 1,000 of these different programs around the country — trying to help make sure these programs look like professional learning environments. We’re hoping that they will help attract the best types of students, as these are the professionals that are going to be working on your, mine, and everybody’s cars after an accident.
We want to make sure that they’re repairing these cars correctly because they’re skilled in the way that they should be, as opposed to practicing on our cars and then we’re getting in them and driving them on the roads. Coatings and helping with that professional appearance of these programs is obviously the main purpose of us talking, and hopefully we can get more people involved.
SC: That’s obviously great, in and of itself, but you could also add a layer of safety to it, right? I’m sure that a properly coated floor is also a safer floor. The concrete itself is not different levels. Or the acids and what-have-you you’re dropping on it, potentially [the coatings] could keep it cleaner and safer. Then the PPE portion as well. I know that’s a part of what you’ve discussed, too, that you’re looking for those donations as well. Do you see that the safety aspect is part of it, too?
BE: Absolutely. If we can instill those habits of making sure that the students stay safe when they’re in the educational time in their career, hopefully that stays with them when they go out into the industry. Whether they go work inside a body shop, a dealership, or any of the other different industry segments and career paths that are available in the industry, to your point, that emphasis on safety while they’re in school is always key.
SC: One of the other things that you pointed out that I want to make sure we highlight is — probably just like the coatings contractors’ world — there’s a labor shortage. I’m sure you’re having similar struggles in that area as well. If this could potentially attract people to that area, that could be a great benefit from it.
BE: The average age within our industry — which, like you said, is probably no different than the other industries — is getting closer and closer to 50 years old. You have multimillion- and billion-dollar companies who are in absolute panic mode because their workforce is getting older. They need properly trained entry-level staff to come in.
If we can help put the technical trades, and specifically the collision industry for our focus, in a better and more positive light, hopefully that will help change the mindset of the parents, the administration, the guidance counselors — some people that see it more as a dumping ground because they’ve been pushed the traditional four-year college route. College isn’t for everybody. I, like I mentioned, was a product of that. But you can make an absolute incredible career within this industry, like many of the other technical trades. If by making these programs look more professional, if that helps attract more students, that’s a win for everybody.
SC: One of the things that we say in the coatings world — at least I’ve been saying this a lot or hearing this a lot lately — is although there are some people who want to go into that industry from the get-go — similar probably to auto repair — a lot of people come in it from different angles. If there are people who don’t know that that’s their path but they find their way into it, then wouldn’t it be great to be able to show them this professional side of it? That would be great.
BE: Exactly. And there’s lots of career paths that people aren’t necessarily aware of. Again, I’ve been in the industry for nearly 20 years, and believe me, you don’t want me touching someone’s car. But I am still part of the industry, and there’s still paths and career opportunities in addition to the hands-on repairs that would be happening with some of those students who are going down that path.
SC: I feel the same way. We have a lot in common, I imagine. I know now a lot about concrete, but I should not be doing it.
SC: Shouldn’t be prepping it, shouldn’t be coating it. I at least know not to call it cement. How can people in the coatings industry — whether that’s the contractors, the manufacturers, the people who supply the safety materials, the distributors — it’s a great big world — how can we get the word out to them? What can they do to help? What can we do to help encourage people to participate with you guys?
BE: Because we support any high school or college, technical college, community college that has a collision program, there isn’t a market around the country that probably doesn’t have a school that can be supported in this type of effort with their flooring and looking professional. By reaching out to us, what we can do is find out where those companies or contacts have, where their markets are at. We can help identify schools and explore that opportunity to see what type of situation the school is in, how the school can get involved. Because some schools have the budget to be able to help when it comes to possibly prepping the floor. Or they might not have that opportunity.
So whether it’s them donating those services, which is obviously great — any kind of donated service is tax deductible because we’re a 501(c)(3) charity. However, we can also explore if they can provide any type of educational discount by adopting or helping out specific local schools. We can start that process. And the timing is perfect because a lot of that type of work has to happen over the summer or winter break because that’s a time when the students are away. The school has the opportunity to clear out the program with all the tools, the equipment, and things like that. That’s when that work can be done. Us having that conversation now, leading up to the summer break, is ideal. The next time, obviously, is the winter types of breaks, but from my understanding, some of this type of work can’t be done in the frigid weather we have up here in Chicago. It’s more of the temperate weather. Summer’s the perfect time, and we’d love to be able to do a number of different projects over that summer break if possible.
SC: That’s good to know. It sounds like maybe they should reach out to you guys, and we’ll give some information at the end of our chat. Before we get there, what’s the three- to five-year goal or plan? I would think that, even if you are able to coat all of these schools, which would be amazing, in some amount of time, you’ll have to start back over again and do them in the future, 10–20 years down the line. What does the future look like for you guys?
BE: We’ve been fortunate to — since 2009, when we began that philanthropic focus — we, through a very generous industry, have been able to provide over $300 million worth of support. Which has been greatly appreciated and kind of what our — we’re in some strategic planning initiatives right now to figure out what those next three to five years is going to be. What our plan is, through initiatives like this, is to try to get out in front of the public to attract more students to these programs.
Because what we’re honestly seeing — and I believe this is the case for a lot of the other technical trades — is that the school administration is constantly reviewing their budgets. Those classes, especially the more costly ones, which are typically more on the technical trades side because of all the tools and equipment that are needed, if they’re not filling up their classrooms, they’re usually the first on the chopping block of being closed down. What we’re trying to do is avoid that. There’s a big industry conference in our industry called SEMA, which happens out in Las Vegas every November. We usually have an instructor roundtable. Sadly, the instructors tell us that they have to root for recessions because that’s when people start to think about going back to school and consider career changes.
Hopefully, within the next couple years of us trying to slowly change that mindset of the public of this being a viable career path for them, hopefully that will begin a process of it being more accepted as a career path. Then we can help get these students employed within the industry and help start addressing that aging workforce issue that we’ve been talking about. The number of students needed is not currently in the educational pipeline, so we need to increase those numbers in order to fulfill the needs that this industry has. That obviously will be done through investing in the local schools.
SC: In addition to the potential for helping to change the gap with the number of people who are needed in the industry, are you seeing other sorts of trends happening for the near future? Whether it’s for you guys specifically as an association or maybe even beyond into the trades or the specific trades that you guys are dealing with?
BE: I think it’s been in the news a lot more about the student debt issue, and that the traditional four-year college route is not for everybody. I think people are having to take a real hard look at, “Do I go myself to college or do I send my child to college?” Because if they don’t have a lot of job prospects and then they’re going to be burdened with this mountain of student debt, it is an opportunity. It’s a trend, I think, with a lot of the other technical trades.
It’s a good time for this to be brought up because of that issue. We’re fortunate. From what we’ve heard, there aren’t other foundations like us in the other technical trades. We’ve heard that the collision instructors are sometimes the envy of other instructors because there’s just constant support being sent and delivered to these instructors. Their counterparts are asking, “Where is this all coming from?” And they say, “Well, there’s this foundation out there that tries and works with the industry.” What I would love to see is if other groups like us could be formed just to rally the industry to come together for those schools, because I think they’re hurting like everybody else. But we’ve been extremely fortunate to be supported by some incredible partners.
What’s also important to note is that, as a charity, we return 90 cents of every dollar back to the schools. We’re very lean in our operations. That’s not difficult when we’re only a staff of four trying to solve the nationwide issue, but obviously always important to note.
SC: I think people do definitely pay attention to that, so that’s great to share. It would be amazing if each trade had its own advocacy group like what you guys have, and how much more you could do probably kind of across the board as a larger group. I’ve sat in on some meetings at conferences — obviously before last year — where they were trying to look outside the box as far as, “Where can we look for people for our coatings contracting companies? We’re not finding them the way that we had been 10 years ago. Maybe we need to start talking to high schoolers. Maybe we need to start talking to middle schoolers.”
BE: We’ve actually heard, in some markets, the schools have the students pick their career path in junior high. I don’t know about you, but I did not know what career path I wanted to go in junior high. To your point, we have to get out in front of the students and parents at an earlier age. Some of the things that we’re doing — again, not having a huge marketing or advertising budget — on the employment side, one of the areas that we focus on, we’ve actually been starting to partner with some of the dealership associations around the country and holding our career fair events on the auto show floors. In addition to the main purpose of connecting the students with companies that are looking to hire in that market, it allows us to get out in front of the parents and the general public who are visiting the auto show.
We see them asking questions, “What’s going on over here? What’s going on?” At the Denver auto show back in 2019, I think — that was the last time I think we were able to get together — I literally saw parents pushing their kids into the career fair, saying, “Get out of my basement. Get a job. These people are here to hire you. Go talk to them.” Things like that. I’d love to see us be more — especially around the holidays, whenever we see those PSAs for different types of charities — I think that we have to have a presence there, just to be getting out in front of the parents.
I think we have an untapped market for any car enthusiast that might be out there. It doesn’t have to be industry specific, but anyone who appreciates cars I think is someone that might be interested in supporting us because they believe they need to bring back auto body shops to the high school programs and things like that. Lots of good potential out there for us.
SC: There’s a lot of potential — at least to show it as an option, right? Nothing is going to be one answer for everyone. There have to be options out there.
SC: It’s interesting because I’m not sure if you have the list in front of you, but I was just thinking. A friend of mine, for example, has a brother who was on the West Coast who wanted to go into cosmetology, but they didn’t have the vo-tech centers like we do on the East Coast. Maybe you have them up there in the North. Are they just at the regular schools, the regular high schools? Across the country, what types of schools are you finding these programs at?
BE: There are some in high schools. To make a little bit of a clarification, we are specific to the collision repair industry, which is separate from the auto service industry. What you will typically find is schools that have an auto service or mechanical program. That’s not the same as what we focus on. Typically you’ll find them at a local high school, but there are a lot of schools — again, with this emergence of a welcoming of the technical trades, you’ll see a lot more technical schools or community colleges that have these types of programs.
We’re trying to help make sure that the high school programs stick around, because they’re under more scrutiny when it comes to cost than the community colleges. They need more support sometimes than some of the other schools. There’s roughly about 1,000 different programs, and that’s another opportunity if anyone interested can reach out to us, we can help provide them with a — if they’re in one market, we can do a 3- to 5-hour radius around where they’re at, where they cover, to explore where those programs are at. Each school is in a different situation, so we can go down that path to find out where we can match up some efforts to help out those programs.
SC: That sounds great. There has to be a huge variety of size and need.
SC: Last year was obviously a unique year, to say the least, and it’s not necessarily gone. I’d like to take an opportunity, if you don’t mind, to focus on a silver lining or opportunities or some challenges that you were able to overcome, not necessarily personally, but you guys as an association. Anything that you can share?
BE: Absolutely. The way I think, I’m always trying to think outside the box when it comes to trying to find a silver lining in any situation. It was, one, different for me. Traveling was obviously halted. Being out in front of the industry at conferences and events, that obviously was stopped. What that allowed us to do is try to get creative. How do you fundraise while also being respectful of the different situations people were going through with their businesses?
Working through some of our industry partnerships, we were able to do things like, through our friends at a company called Stertil-Koni. They produce commercial lifts for larger vehicles to boost them up to be able to do work on them. Their equipment is in Jay Leno’s garage. I reached out to my contact there and said, “I can see in your LinkedIn picture, you are standing next to Jay Leno. Might you be willing to introduce us and see if he might want to get involved?” They were more than happy to help out. Jay Leno actually auctioned off a private tour of his garage for our charity. That was great. Another company, a longstanding partner of ours, 3M, through their contact with Chip Foose — who I’m not sure if you’re familiar with, but he’s a well-known car rebuilder based out of the West Coast in California. They did something similar where Chip Foose auctioned off a meet and greet at his facility. It’s those types of things where you just have to get creative. It also allowed us to expand our fundraising to the general public. So you didn’t have to be someone in the industry to want to be inside Jay Leno’s garage seeing his vehicles. It was that type of thing that we try to get creative with.
Our annual golf fundraiser, that’s usually in person during the summer, we turned it into a virtual golf fundraiser. The company Top Golf, which I’m sure you might be familiar with, they have an online golfing game, which is very realistic. Instead of us doing a physical one, we had golfers from nearly every state in the country and some Canadian golfers participate. You just have to get creative. Just because of the pandemic does not mean the instructors have less need for support. It’s about trying to do what we can to get creative to help them out. We plan on definitely continuing that into this year, knowing that we hope to get back to normal by the summer/into the next school year. But it’s that kind of out-of-the-box thinking and fundraising that I think we’re going to have to continue to help make a difference.
SC: I think what’s interesting is it’s hard to remember that — I know we’re all in it together, but so are these companies. Top Golf is a perfect example. They’ve also had to think outside the box. So if we can think outside the box and they align, then what a great marriage that is. That’s great. How exciting.
BE: This year, as you can imagine for any technical trade, for what these instructors have gone through, trying to teach a hands-on skill via Zoom is not an easy thing to do. These instructors are just as anxious as the rest of us are to get back to that normal style of teaching. Unfortunately, a lot more programs are being told that they’re being red flagged, where if they don’t get more students, then their program’s going to be cut because of budgets. Now more than ever is that support needed and welcomed by the instructors.
SC: Just getting the word out and helping to do things like this would be great. We’re happy to help you guys out. Hopefully there’ll be a great connection or connections with our listeners and the greater coatings world, too. A lot of abilities to overlap there. I’m trying not to use the word “synergy” because I don’t think — that’s just so 2020. [laughter]
BE: We’re done with that year.
SC: We are. Let’s keep that one in the past. Before I ask my quick, rapid-fire questions, is there anything else that you want to mention that I did not get a chance to ask you about today?
BE: No. You actually just commented on this. Thank you for helping to get the word out. Obviously, any opportunity where we can work with somebody or an organization or whomever to help get the word out about what we do —. We try to make sure as much support as possible goes to the schools. So not having that large marketing/advertising budget, opportunities like this are huge for us, just to help spread the word, because you never know where there might be a connection made. If any of your listeners have celebrity contacts or connections or have a connection to something that we can auction off, help fundraise, that’s great. But we will entertain any outreach from your listeners and people that are in that field to start exploring those opportunities with schools that are in the markets.
SC: That would be great. We can help facilitate with them finding those schools in their area. I think this may be a good time for you to give — if people do want to reach out to you and follow up and get some more information, how should they do that?
BE: Our website is www.collisioneducationfoundation.org. You’ll see our contact information through there. If they can or want, they can follow us. We’re on social media: Facebook, find me on LinkedIn, Instagram. But again, we’d love to connect with those people, and to start that conversation would be a great starting point.
SC: Great. Before we let you go, I’m going to make you do this rapid-fire round. It’s a fun way to get to know our interviewees. Let’s start with, Who would you say is your hero or mentor?
BE: Hero or mentor. Slight answer to that question, but a little bit different. There’s a phrase that’s by Margaret Mead that I always love to use inside presentations. It’s “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I think that’s a great philosophy in terms of what can be done by those that care. It’s a quote that I’ve always liked and used. Not sure if that’s really a hero or mentor answer, but it’s a great philosophy in terms of what can be done by people that actually care.
SC: I think that’s great. What’s your biggest pet peeve?
BE: Biggest pet peeve. In our industry, sometimes there’s — I’m in a unique position, because within our charity, I’m trying to fulfill a business need. Sometimes the conversation is — people will be the first to complain about the fact that there’s the aging workforce, and that there needs to be a better quality of student coming out of the school. My question is, “What have you done to get involved with your local school?” Sometimes the answer is, “I don’t have time for that. I have to run my business.” It then allows for a conversation of, “Well, we could either work together to change what’s coming out of your local school, or if we don’t, that complaint will still be around for the next five to 10 years.” People who actually take action as opposed to just complain always opens up an opportunity for conversation and get that relationship going.
SC: That’s a good one. This is actually perfect now that I know your background as far as the journalism and the education that you’ve had. What media are you into right now? Whether it’s TV, podcast, movie, book, what have you.
BE: A little bit of all the above. I loved to write when I was younger. I wrote for the school newspaper. I actually had one of my articles published in an MIT professor’s college textbook, which was pretty cool. These days, it’s more — especially when I was traveling, which seems so long ago — it was listening to podcasts. I’m a big movie person, and I’m always challenging someone to try to be better than me when it comes to movie quotes or being able to name a movie in terms of movie trivia. Especially during these days, you’re kind of stuck with that, being stuck at home. Very frequent user of Netflix and Amazon Prime Movies and AppleTV and all that kind of stuff. Always trying to keep up on the latest series that you hear about that are popular. Kind of a little bit of all the above.
SC: Any favorites that you want to share?
BE: Just recently what was good that I did not expect was The Grand, which was on, I believe, Netflix. That was entertaining. Just recently watched I Care a Lot, which was kind of a thriller type of series. There’s a bunch of movies that are getting released on streaming services, and there’s a bunch coming out this year that I look forward to, whether it’s action flicks or something like that, that I look forward to seeing. Going to the movies was one of my biggest hobbies when we could actually do it, so I look forward to that coming back. Hopefully we’re back there sooner than later.
SC: Thank you so much for sharing that as well as all the information about the Collision Repair Education Foundation with our listeners, with me, and then also hopefully with anyone who might be interested and would reach out to you. Thanks again for joining us.