New Zealand's panel beating industry battling worker shortage

A shortage of skilled staff and increasingly sophisticated cars means vehicle owners in some main centres are waiting up to eight weeks for repairs after a collision.

Panel beaters are so busy they run their workshops with the precision of a doctors surgery to try and stay ahead of demand.

Wellington courier driver Nitesh Kumar lost the back window of his courier van after a truck rolled into him.

“It’s a disaster, I have a back window which will have plastic over it for weeks and then the van will be in the panel shop for a week.”

The insurance claim was approved the next day however, it will be a four to five week wait for the window to be replaced and the panels straightened out.

New Zealanders face a wait of up to three months before a panel beater can repair their damaged vehicle because demand outstrips the number of panel beaters available.

Collision Repair Association general manager Neil Pritchard says the wait will only get worse in many areas of New Zealand. 

“If you are lucky enough to live in Christchurch, the vehicle could be in the panel beater the next day however, in Wellington, Auckland or Queenstown the wait could be anywhere between six and eight weeks.”

The skills shortage is a countrywide problem, every region in the country has panel beaters and vehicle painters listed on the official Regional Skill shortage list.

Andrew Purser had to close his panel shop in Hawera because of a shortage of staff, he still owns and runs the New Plymouth Car Panel and Paint shop which employs 15 staff and three apprentices who work on 28 - 30 vehicles a day.

“We don't advertise, we are busy all year round,” says Purser.

The increased technology of vehicles means a greater demand for specialised parts, Purser orders from around the world. 

“I order parts nationally, sometimes from America, Korea or Canada. We can wait for up to two weeks for them to arrive.”

Work is scheduled along the same lines as a Doctors surgery - “If you miss the slot, we have to reschedule.”

Neil Pritchard says, even though the New Zealand car fleet is old, at 14 years compared to Australia’s 10-12 years and seven years for Europe, the number of imported cars means more people can afford a more technically sophisticated vehicle.

On a newer vehicle, if you have a simple bumper or grill accident there are cameras and radar sensors which need to be checked and possibly replaced or recalibrated - there is a lot more cost attached to those jobs, says Pritchard.

“We are dependent on technology, if you have a flashing mirror to warn you about a passing car and it doesn't work, you could be in trouble the next time you pull into the traffic.”

Although the number of registered vehicles has grown 28 per cent in the last 10 years, the corresponding increase in the number of insurance claims is less than two per cent showing the wait is due to a shortage of skills rather than an increase in damaged vehicles.

The skills shortage is being addressed through targeted immigration, in-house training, school based Gateway programmes and specialised training at six technical institutes.

Many in the industry believe that the training figures do not address the growing skills deficit.

A 2017 industry survey carried out by the Association show that 44 per cent of panelbeaters are aged between 50-59 years, have had 30 years experience in the industry and a majority of businesses are owned by owner or part-owner operators.

The Association receives between 150 to 200 graduates annually and their members repair approximately 300,000 vehicles a year.

The number of graduates has steadily fallen since 2013 even though the Ministry of Business Innovation and Education provides subsidised funding for apprentice training.

Since 2017, industry apprentice skills provider MITO has offered a NZ certificate in Collision Repair.  Todate 347 apprentices are completing the 39 month course alongside their full time employment in a panel shop.

MITO group manager marketing and engagement Rachael Dippe says the course is tailored to meet industry demand. “There is not a maximum number of apprentices, the course is totally scalable to meet what the industry needs.”