When the unemployment rate drops to 3.8 percent, Minnesota employers are forced to get creative to attract and keep the workers they need. ABRA Auto Body & Glass is combatting the labor shortage with a huge investment—opening a Career Development Academy this summer in Eagan.

The 14,000-square-foot facility is being used to train the next generation of auto body technicians. “If we could hire a hundred more, we would,” David Kuhl, ABRA’s chief people officer, tells TCB. “They are not out there, so we are creating our own.”

ABRA, headquartered in Brooklyn Park, operates in 24 states, and about 1,200 of its workforce of 5,200 are technicians.

“The millennials aren’t going into the trades very frequently, and the older workers are retiring,” Kuhl says. “So we are getting hammered on both ends.” To lure young people into the auto body pipeline, ABRA is offering five weeks of paid training and immediate job placement for those who successfully complete the program.

By early July about 250 people had applied for the training program that began last month. The first class will consist of 12 students, and Kuhl expects that about 200 auto body technicians will be trained in Eagan by the end of 2017.

“Does the ABRA approach sound like a good thing? Absolutely,” says Monte Hanson, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. While the state doesn’t track how many companies provide paid training, Hanson says that ABRA’s development academy is an innovative strategy for coping with a tight labor market. As the competition for talent intensifies, Hanson says, companies are continuing to devise different strategies to entice new workers, such as an employer-supported manufacturing lab at Alexandria Area High School.

At ABRA, Kuhl says apprentices in the five-week training program will earn $11 an hour. In their first year of employment, he says they’ll make about $30,000. By year three, they could be in the $60,000 to $80,000 range. In 2015, the average annual wages for an ABRA auto body technician were $79,695.

In addition to attracting new people to the profession, ABRA also wants to hire experienced auto body technicians. People who refer veteran technicians to ABRA can earn up to $5,000 in referral fees.

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