This article first appeared in the May/June issue of Jobebr News. To access the digital version, click HERE.
Online learning is here to stay. But can it be done without experiencing virtual burnout?
Before COVID-19 swept the globe, online training was often regarded as a back-up solution for those who couldn’t make the in-person meet. But as of 2020, virtual learning has become a staple to allowing essential industries, including the automotive aftermarket, carry on and carry out their operations.
Prior to COVID-19, Standard Motor Products was one such company that conducted approximately 2,500 in person classes across North America, from Guam, to Fairbanks, Maine; all the way down to Puerto Rico. Instructors were even flown out of state for a few days, to train a group of technicians and then they’d fly home. Much like other companies, SMP also ran a successful online program pre-COVID-19, which started in 2008 with live webinars. “We always dabbled in the online environment, so when COVID-19 hit, and we were no longer able to travel or meet in person, it was a very clear transition for us to be able to train or technicians virtually,” said Ryan Kooiman, Director of Training, Standard Motor Products.
Standard Motor Products is a 102-year-old aftermarket manufacturer of engine management and temperature control components. The company is publicly traded, and over the last century, four generations of the same family have run the business, with the current CEO being the great grandson of the company’s original founder. “Although we’re a large company, we operate under those family values,” said Kooiman. “Part of our commitment to the aftermarket is to educate our customers and technicians, and that’s where training has been an important part of the company for over 45 years.”
Virtual fatigue, burnout, and why it happens
What many thought would be a short-lived solution for an industry that thrives on relationship building and human interaction, has morphed into a regular occurrence, proving that virtual training now has a permanent home in the automotive aftermarket. For technicians living outside of major cities, these virtual training classes unlock critical information that may not have always been so easily accessible.
All of the technicians who complete training with SMP are registered by the company. “We’ve got a record of everybody we’ve ever trained, going back at least a decade,” Kooiman said. “We’re seeing that 97 per cent of the people that are attending our classes today have never previously attended one of our training classes. This means we’ve reached a whole new market of technicians, but it also tells us that we’ve lost a big market of technicians as well,” Kooiman explained.
Despite the seemingly simplistic nature of online training, Kooiman acknowledges that there is a large market of technicians who do not want to engage in online training courses, crediting terms like “virtual fatigue” and “Zoom burnout” as two of the leading reasons why.
“Technicians by nature are very social creatures, despite many people not having that impression of them,” Kooiman said. “As a technician of 18 years, I always enjoyed going to classes, just to share the war stories with my brothers before and after the class, or at break time,” Kooiman said. “I think that’s what a lot of technicians miss, and it’s something that can’t be replicated in a virtual atmosphere.”
How to make virtual material stick
When the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic resulted in lockdowns, reduced travel, and increased focus on personal health and safety, SMP’s Standard Pro Training team has shifted its focus to now primarily providing virtual, educational content. According to Kooiman, SMP tries to keep its virtual classes as engaging as possible, whether that’s by adding polls to encourage discussion and commentary amongst technicians, or by adding efficient break times (SMP includes a minimum of six). SMP also incorporates case studies into its training modules. Two of the major training programs SMP holds are Standard Pro Training On-Site and the Automotive Education Program (AME).
Standard Pro Training On-Site is a reality-based technician training program focused on the needs of the aftermarket professional automotive technician. The Automotive Education Program (AEP) is designed to assist instructors and help automotive technology students develop professional skills they can use in the bay. This program offers supplemental training for students, while providing an opportunity for them to earn gifts and help their instructor outfit the classroom. Since its launch in September 2020, more than 1,000 technical students have already “learned and earned” through Level 1 of the program.
“While some people like to just talk about facts, figure, and theory, or what’s the newest, greatest, or latest, our approach in the automotive training world is more so to give the technician information that they can use on the car that’s going to pull into their bay tomorrow,” Kooiman explained. “We use a lot of real-life stories that are submitted to us by technicians, and we actually work through the diagnosis of that particular vehicle together as a group and when we’re done, we open up the discussion to attendees to get their perspective.”
Keeping the communication lines open between instructor and participant, Kooiman says, is critical to preventing things like virtual burnout. To better embrace virtual training, Kooiman recommends incorporating the following elements into digital trainings:
Make the material relevant: facts and figures are great, but there needs to be relevance to what the technician sees daily. Identify their everyday challenges and address them in a way that’s engaging and creative, such as by using a case study.
Strike a balance: if the option to hold in-person training does become available (for example, in socially distanced groups), consider holding an in-person class, but always keep the virtual class as an option.
Develop content that’s specific to a virtual environment: try to avoid teaching topics that are less effective in an online environment. If you must, consider using live video or animation, as opposed to simply writing down the process on a slideshow.
Make room for assessment: incorporate mini-tests, quizzes, or portions that allow trainees to share their opinions on the course material. This is beneficial to the trainer and trainee.
“It’s always important to remember that while training doesn’t cost anything, it definitely pays,” Kooiman said. “Some shop owners may be scared to invest in their technicians because they think they’ll go work for the competition. But if it’s going to cost $100 to go to a training event, how much information will the technician get there that will make them that much more profitable at their job? It doesn’t take a whole lot of billable labour to recoup that $100, so I believe it’s a very inexpensive investment to educate a technician and earn it back,” Kooiman concluded.