Most shop owners and managers will say their greatest monthly expense is personnel. This is also their greatest asset, given that without mechanics there’s no income.
So why do so many shops have difficulties taking on free labour like co-op students? Some of the reasons shop owners give are co-op students need to be watched over; they have limited skills; they do the silliest things at times; and some are pretty mouthy.
However, do we need to say that many full-time mechanics do the silliest things at times as well? Some are inpatient with each other; come off as knowing everything; and don’t always follow the Mitchell manual to the letter.
I know I’m going to get flak for what I’ve just said. But if we could get past how we ‘grew up’ in the trade, we might find a diamond in the rough in many of today’s co-op students. Most high schools have co-op programs, and the students are monitored by their teachers. Not only does having a co-op student offer you the chance to teach the benefits and rewards of the automotive service trade, but it also offers your shop an opportunity to gain some free advertising within a local school, with about seventy-five teachers, as well as the friends and families of the co-op students.
What you need to know about co-op students
For those of you who haven’t had a co-op student, here is how the co-op program works and how you can take advantage of benefits these co-op programs offer:
First, you are approached by a local high school teacher, asking if you are interested in taking on a student to help around the shop. There is no charge to the shop, and the school board covers the insurance. The prospective student(s) comes for an interview, at which time you would ask questions: “Have you rotated tires at the school? Have you done oil changes under your teacher’s supervision; inspected disc and drum brakes and reported your opinion to your teacher?”
Remember, these students are not mechanics as of yet. But they are enthusiastic students, still learning and trying to decide their future and being a mechanic is one option they are seriously looking into and thinking about. So when that student is sitting in front of you, probably a little nervous, take the time to ask questions that can be confirmed by their Auto Shop teacher, the person they have been training under. You can call after the interview and confirm what was said, much in the same way you follow up with the reference information a prospective employee supplies on their resume. Once you’ve decided to take on a student, their co-op teacher has some paper work to fill out: insurance information, the supervisor’s name, and such. This won’t take more than 20 min. but it has to be done prior to the student coming.
When the student shows up for the first day of work at your shop, you’ll have to get them up to speed with duties and expectations, like you would with any new employee keeping in mind they probably have never been in a full working shop before. Assume nothing and water down all your instruction until you feel comfortable with them doing what you say. After a few weeks (maybe sooner depending on the arrangements you’ve made with the teacher), you’ll have to fill out progress reports. This might be verbal, or a check list for you to fill out. Either way, this report will be part of the student’s final mark so be realistic about what was asked and what was done. Depending on the school, the student will be with you for half a day, (two credits), all day, (four credits), and some may have Fridays off, (three credits). There are other setups, so ask the teacher about the times.
Remember, these are students you are working with, so March break and other holidays still apply to them and they may not think to tell you, assuming you’re the adult and you just knew. Don’t get frustrated, they are just kids.
There are other ways of getting co-op students. You can contact the school board and ask for the co-op coordinator and have them contact you with a list of schools in your area. At this point, you could contact your local school and ask for the co-op department and speak with a teacher about your needs and available positions. And remember, kids aren’t only interested in the shop floor. There is the front desk, and the parts department. Be creative, as there’s a kid for every spot.
All it takes is a few phone calls and you may have your next long term employee, or just some help for around the shop, either way, it’s a plus for everybody!
Richard Bellafante teaches automotive technology at Etobicoke Ontario’s Don Bosco Catholic Secondary School.