Cost and time aren't the problems some think they are. Want your techs to take training seriously? Start training at the top.
Some jobs are more secure than others. This is especially true of the kinds of work that have to be done on-site and can’t be shipped overseas — a list where automotive repair occupies top spot. For automotive technicians who master their trade, job security is very good. But the rapid changes underway in automotive technology also mean that keeping current is a challenge for techs, for the public and private institutions that offer training programs and for the shop owners who have to find the money and time to invest in their employees’ know-how.
“What I hear from trainers is that the curriculum is already so full that there’s no time to add new material,” says Craig Van Batenburg, CEO of Automotive Career Development Center (ACDC) in Worcester, Massachusetts. “They agree that new material is needed, but they say to fit it in they either have to remove something that’s already in there, or add a semester — and no one wants to do that.”
In particular there’s a big push to get hybrid and electric vehicle (EV) curriculum into the colleges, an area of training that Van Batenburg knows well. He’s recently launched a program to expand his “Up Your Voltage” training program into Canada, starting in Montreal, but with plans to spread to Toronto and Vancouver. The expansion includes a forthcoming French translation of the extensive curriculum he’s developed over the years and which he updates annually.
Van Batenburg says that many technicians find it’s a big leap to go from the 12-volt world to hybrid and EV technology. In his course, he shows trainees a slide that depicts a human brain with the label “Your 12-volt brain,” followed by one that shows a pea-sized brain labeled “Your high-voltage brain.”
In case they don’t get the distinction, Van Batenburg also gets them to start a hybrid in the shop — having unplugged the fuel injectors and ignition coils beforehand. “When they try to start the car, it cranks at 1,000 RPM for 30 seconds and then the computer times out. But they all agree it had a spark and fuel, because it sounds like it was running. I show them what I’ve done, we head back to class, and I tell them ‘This is how your 12-volt brain can fool you.’”
Of course automotive training is a matter of more than the nuts and bolts. Murray Voth, Senior Trainer, Total Automotive Consulting and Training (TACT), believes that shops generally aren’t focused enough on maintaining the profitability they need to invest in training. He adds that he hears complaints that the training they need just isn’t available — a claim he greets with skepticism, pointing to programs such as CARS (Canadian Automotive Repair and Service — www.carsondemand.com), CARSability (www.carsability.ca) and the NAPA Excellence training website (uap.strategia.ca).
For Voth, the problem is the attitude of the shop owners themselves. “Most of them seem to find it difficult to set up a discipline to get their technicians to take training. They have one or two take it at night on their own time.” Voth teaches managers how they can develop and implement practical training plans for their technicians that can be run during business hours, which means technicians can actually get paid to upgrade their skills instead of shouldering the costs themselves and studying during personal time. “Sure there are employees who like to invest in their future,” Voth says. “But really, it’s not the technicians’ fault that the technology is changing so fast. In my opinion, management really should pay for the training.”
Voth says that companies that offer in-class programs tend to focus too much on manufacturer-specific systems. He favours a principles-based approach that instead focuses on the underlying concepts of electronics, voltage, fuel, control etc. common to all systems. “A focus on specific systems is needed, but a fundamental understanding of the principles behind all systems makes techs more adaptable, gives them a better understanding. Plus some shops simply don’t do certain systems. So there has to be a broader scope.”
Training only becomes more critical as the nature of the technician’s job changes, and diagnostics has to be acknowledged as a larger and larger part of what any shop sells. “It’s a big shift that the industry’s had a hard time making,” Voth says. “In the 70s and 80s you could sometimes diagnose a problem just by listening to an engine, and you’d spend 80 to 90 per cent of your time doing the repairs. Now techs can spend half their time diagnosing. If you’re not billing for that time the way a lawyer or accountant would, how are you going to pay for the training and equipment you need?”
Voth recommends an incremental approach, as most shop owners are reluctant to charge for diagnostics to the extent they should. He suggests slowly ramping up diagnostics charges and investing the revenue in equipment and also, of course, in training.
For Rob Brouwer, owner and president of Precision Automotive in Ottawa, training starts — or should start — at the top. “The bottom line is that few owners actually go to training themselves. They feel that they already know whatever they need to know — but how can you expect your technicians to get trained if you don’t do it yourself?”
Brouwer understands that techs are usually too busy to take time off for training, but he points out that so much training is now available online that time — and cost — aren’t the problems they used to be. A tech can easily spare an hour or two here and there to go online and upgrade skills. More importantly, perhaps, Brouwer believes that business training for the shop owner and manager is actually more important in the long run because it enables a business to establish the sound footing it needs in order to develop its human and financial resources. Brouwer singles out TACT as a particularly worthwhile program — “it transforms your business,” is how he puts it.
Brouwer’s not a big fan of government involvement in automotive training, and he believes the industry’s suppliers are already doing the lion’s share, especially on the technical side, as opposed to the management side where government support does have a role to play.
“People forget that investing in your company doesn’t just mean buying the newest scan tool or hoist equipment. A good portion of your investment should be in training. The discipline to run a reputable shop is so much harder today than it used to be — you can’t just run everything by the seat of your pants and expect to be successful.”
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