For the old-timers who have spent their last 50 years on the learning curve, supporting technical education has always sounded like a cosmetic adornment, something to be marveled at, but otherwise ignored. But the times are changing, especially for those who began their careers in the Automotive Stone Age by learning how to fine-tune carburetors and adjust contact points. Technical training can no longer be ignored in a market in which even the cheapest car on the street uses engine management technology unimaginable a decade ago and in which hybrid electric vehicles have progressed from abstract theory to service-bay reality.
To better illustrate the importance of formal technical education, let’s look at how auto technicians themselves have changed in recent years. If you visit the International Automotive Technicians Network (www.iatn.net), you’ll discover that these modern automotive technicians and shop owners are more likely to be a literate, well-educated person who is changing the future of the automotive service industry by either teaching highly technical subjects or by directly supporting technical education with their money, time and personal attention.
PASSING ON THE CULTURE
The automotive service industry is one of the few industries lacking a formal apprenticeship or training program. Too often, formal technical education has been undermined by apathy, ignorance and an often mean-spirited lack of support. Too many old-timers, for example, brush modern technical education aside by saying, ‘New people can learn from the ground-up, just like I did.’ Of course, it goes without saying that the recruit of today must know at least a hundred times more information than the recruit of the Ô60s and Ô70s just to get started.Historically speaking, little progress has been made because many shops live a parasitic existence by hiring trained technicians away from competing independents or dealership shops. Unfortunately, recruitment by theft tends to destroy the very image and prestige needed by the industry to attract young people qualified to service today’s leading-edge technology.
LOOKING IN THE MIRROR
Support for technical education often begins with self-improvement for those who participate. To better illustrate, if a shop owner speaks before a group of kids during a high school career day program, he will be much more aware of the language he uses and the way he dresses for the occasion. He’s going to be putting on his best face and, when he does that, he’s going to begin improving himself as well as his industry.
With that said, the next step out of the Stone Age is to call a local high school or vocational education center to find out what types of career education programs are being offered. A simple phone call might ultimately result in access to a number of bright, hard-working auto repair students who are itching to start their first jobs. Or, the phone call might get a shop owner into a career day program in which representatives from various industries pitch their respective trades to students searching for careers that best suit their individual talents, abilities and inclinations. In most cases, attending a career day program emphasizes how tough it is to compete for quality people, and that, in itself, is a lesson learned for the aftermarket industry at large.
Most high schools offer some type of work experience program that enables students to spend at least several hours per week learning about a prospective career path. In most states, the student must be over 16 years old and should be covered for on-the-job accidents by the school’s student insurance program. The program itself may be a simple job-shadow program in which the student merely watches a technician at work or it may be a more sophisticated work experience program in which the student actually begins to learn the basic business process and technically related skills.
Many high school auto mechanics programs sponsor an Automotive Youth Education Systems (AYES) program in which the student studies auto mechanics during the school year and learns his trade at a sponsoring shop after school hours or full-time during the summer. In other cases, high school auto mechanics programs place students in shops via the school’s work experience programs.
Vocational schools provide many opportunities for either a jobber or an independent repair shop to support technical education. For example, all vocational schools must have a professional advisory committee that periodically reviews the program and its needs. Serving on an advisory committee not only provides an opportunity to help improve local vocational education, but also to hire some of its best graduates not to mention, of course, that it gives a shop owner a chance to rub elbows with his peers in the local service industries!Next, most vocational schools teach half-day classroom programs in order to allow their students to work a half-day in the field. The theory behind this type of scheduling is that on-the-job time reinforces classroom training. In addition, when the student graduates from the program, he often has a job waiting for him at the shop that provided his work experience or apprenticeship training.
TORE-SPONSORED TECHNICAL TRAINING
Okay, so how can a jobber and independent shop owner become more involved with in-field technical training? Let me begin by saying that technical training, like the technology it serves, is becoming more complicated. Trainers must spend many hours researching topics, putting together instructional aids and assembling hands-on media that illustrate or augment written and spoken instruction.
It’s increasingly more difficult to provide substantial technical education in the four-hour, nighttime format of the jobber clinic. Today’s vehicles are tremendously complicated, and trying to teach OBD II diagnostics in a four-hour time slot is impossible.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that jobber clinics are going the way of the dinosaurs. Many skilled instructors can give a lot of technical updating in a three-hour time slot. Moreover, the narrower the focus on the subject matter, the more can be taught.
On a larger scale, however, the trend is toward pay-as-you-go, on-going, formal technical education that provides technicians ground-up education in conventional and leading-edge technology. The formal education concept is gaining credibility among shops that recognize that their technicians need continual training in order to keep up with emerging technology. Sure, formal training costs money, but so do ignorance and ineptitude.
DOLLARS AND TIME
Unfortunately, too much attention is paid to the dollars and time required to support technical education and not enough on the potential results. The aftermarket service industry has a history of trying to prosper by riding on somebody else’s recruitment coattails. Independent shops have been too dependent upon auto manufacturers to train future technicians.
But modern technology is changing all of this. The learning curve is now longer and more demanding, and those shops providing a learning curve for future recruits are jealously guarding their investments by offering better working conditions and employment incentives.
Once the aftermarket chooses to actively recruit good people through better support for technical education, it will become a truly progressive market force to be reckoned with in the bountiful days ahead.Gary Goms owns and operates Midland Engine Electronics & Diagnostics in Buena Vista, CO.