Auto Service World
Feature   September 1, 2012   by By Andrew Brooks

Sparking Interest

More training resources are available for those who work on hybrid vehicles

Experience is the best teacher, especially when what’s being taught is something so different from what’s gone before that the knowledge you already possess doesn’t provide much of a guide to what to expect.

That’s why Matt Overbeck, general manager of Overbeck Auto Services in Cincinnati, Ohio, and founder (in January 2011) of its subsidiary company Cincinnati Hybrid, always uses a new problem with a customer’s hybrid vehicle as an educational opportunity for everyone in the shop, himself included.

“Whenever we get a new or unique problem, we use that as a ‘teaching moment,’” Overbeck says, “even if it’s something that we’ve read up on already or even been taught about.”

Overbeck is a big fan of Craig Van Batenburg’s pioneering work with his “Up Your Voltage” training class on hybrid technology, which he took three years ago. “We didn’t start to market ourselves as hybrid specialists until after that class,” he says. To this day, if Van Batenburg brings his master class somewhere close by — and especially if there’s something new to be learned — Overbeck makes sure techs of his who haven’t had the course get the chance to go.

That brings up one of the values of training on new hybrid technologies. The course is a week long and a week is a long time for anyone to be down a tech. But Overbeck insists it’s one of the costs of keeping current in a fast-changing, competitive environment, and worth every hour and every penny.

“Sure it’s tough to have someone out of the shop for a week. But it’s like anything else — you have to buck up and do it. It’s a small price to pay. Besides, it’s over before you know it.”

Van Batenburg, who runs the Automotive Career Development Center, was convinced early on that opportunities to train techs to service hybrid vehicles were lagging badly, even if many independent shops in the early days didn’t themselves see an immediate need to make a serious effort to get their techs up to speed. The question was more than merely one of what was best for business, says Van Batenburg, who points out that the electrical side of hybrid technology remains poorly understood by techs — and that the battery produces voltage high enough to kill someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

The notion that direct experience is critical in understanding how to service hybrids is definitely shared by Overbeck, who bought himself a Toyota Prius so that he’d understand firsthand what the technology can do and what it takes to keep a hybrid in running order. Of course he was helped by the fact that he has a degree in mechanical engineering, something shop owners obviously can’t demand from their techs. But proper training is a reasonable expectation and shop owners have to be prepared to invest money and time to see that their technicians receive it, even if hybrids still make up a relatively small portion of the vehicle pool.

A slow start?

For Bob Stathis, co-owner of Status Auto and Tire in Toronto, the low volume of hybrid work is still holding up efforts to get technicians up to speed. Part of the problem, Stathis believes, is the lack of any sense of urgency on the part of the potential trainees themselves.

“Technicians in the GTA don’t seem eager to educate themselves,” he says. “I think this has to do with the low volume of hybrid vehicles in the GTA.” Stathis says around one per cent of the business is devoted to servicing hybrids right now. But that number is growing, and Stathis himself clearly believes in the value of the training, even at this early stage: he teaches the “Automotive Hybrid Technologies” evening course in the Continuing Education department at Toronto’s Centennial College, where he’s been on the faculty since 2009. (He himself bought a five-year-old Prius a few years ago so he’d see first-hand how hybrids work and what can potentially go wrong as they get older.)

“After taking the hybrid course my students are able to understand hybrid operation, various operating systems, manufacture specific systems—and most importantly safety — when servicing hybrids,” Stathis says. “I also teach various C of Q automotive service technician courses during the day at various levels.”

Stathis says the cost of the training offered by Centennial College, and by implication other similar programs, is well within the training budget of most shops. And training is also available in the U.S. from different companies — the “Up Your Voltage” course offered by Van Batenburg’s Automotive Career Development Center (ACDC) being perhaps the most notable example.

“Most automotive shops view training as a cost or burden. In reality technician training is an investment just like new shop tools or equipment,” Stathis says. He notes that there are now many excellent online and classroom training resources available to technicians. “Things have progressed from years ago when training was scarce and usually ended with long sales pitch from a parts manufacturer.”

The online alternative is often touted as superior to in-person, in-classroom training as it reduces a technician’s time away from shop, costs less, is less inconvenient for the trainee and can be pursued at the learner’s own pace. All true enough, but especially with the new technologies that hybrids are based on, face-to-face learning is still the best choice.

“I’ve taken both classroom and online training,” Stathis says, “and in my opinion classroom is the best by a far margin. There’s nothing wrong with online training, but the student must properly prepare their online environment as if it was a classroom.” Some of the down sides to online learning include distractions and connection problems. A classroom environment allows — you could say forces — the student to focus entirely on the subject and the teacher is able to get instant feedback to verify that the material has been absorbed by the students.

Overbeck echoes that assessment, based on his own personal experience as a student in Van Batenburg’s hybrid training course. “Until you get your hands on and you’re faced with taking a battery out or a transmission apart — well, my confidence level would have been nowhere near what it is without having that level of training first. Taking some ownership is important.”

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