LISLE, Ill. —For industries like auto repair, the worker shortage didn't start with the pandemic.
It won't end with it, either.
"Not to belittle the pandemic we're in, but the next pandemic is going to be a skilled workforce," John Dodson, vice president of business alliances at Universal Technical Institute (UTI), said.
"We're in it now. Other news has taken precedence, but to find (auto) technicians and welders, pipe fitters and electricians — people who can fix and repair things — it's going to get more and more difficult."
Belle Tire Distributors Inc. understands that, which is why it recently partnered with UTI on a newly remodeled and equipped classroom at its Lisle campus, located about 40 minutes southwest of Chicago. Belle Tire also presented three $1,000 scholarships to UTI students.
"UTI is obviously focused on training students and teaching them the skills to be successful in the automotive industry," John Szeliga, vice president of retail operations at Belle Tire, which did a similar sponsorship earlier this summer at Lincoln Educational Services Corp.'s Lincoln Tech Indianapolis campus.
"As an employer in that space, we realize there is such a shortage of skilled people for these positions.
"UTI being a leader in that space, we thought it was a perfect match."
Belle Tire has more than 130 locations in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio and plans to open more than 50 stores in the Chicago area over the next four years. Four of those stories are scheduled to open before year-end.
"We just think it's a great market and we don't think there are any key regional players like Belle Tire there," Mr. Szeliga said of Chicago. "Our business is successful not necessarily because of the buildings that we build, but the people that we hire and have within those four walls.
"Partnering as a company with UTI, which promotes and trains all of their students the way that we do, gives us an opportunity to put good students in Belle Tire uniforms and help out our customers."
Mr. Dodson has a NASCAR background — he spent 25 years as a pit crew tire changer and race car builder — and is still based in Charlotte, N.C., at the NASCAR technical institute, where UTI serves as the official education provider.
Consequently, he understands the importance of branding. By sponsoring a classroom, Belle Tire gets its branding in front of prospective employees.
"We try to match the classroom with the type of business it is," Mr. Dodson said. "Instead of sitting in an empty classroom with training aides around but just white walls, we customize them. They (the companies) play a part in designing the room."
The classroom also includes messaging, so companies can promote, say, a tuition reimbursement program or a tool allowance.
"Basically, it's a billboard for a captive audience," Mr. Dodson said. "You can put it on the interstate and how many 19-year-olds who are thinking about becoming techs are going to see it? Or you can put it in the classroom with 25 students and they're gonna see it."
UTI has a lot of branded classrooms — Interstate Battery System of Americas Inc. and Shell Oil Co., for instance, have rooms in each of the company's 13 campuses — so companies know that if they don't sponsor a room, a competitor will, Mr. Dodson said.
"A student might look at that wall and say, 'Wow, I wonder what's happening over at Belle Tire? I want to know more about it,'" he said. "The good thing is they can work there part-time while they're going to school, get ahead on their training and that can spawn full-time relationships when the student graduates."