As we continue our discussion about the need for our industry to be committed to training, let’s discuss what this means from a technician’s point of view. Let me first qualify myself: I entered this industry as a technician and over the last 40-plus years have always identified myself as an automotive technician. While I haven’t pulled a wrench in anger in many years, I can assure you that I still think from a technician’s perspective when creating programs and solutions for shop owners and their teams. I attended college with a focus on mechanical engineering but my passion was the automobile, and in the mid 1970s I began work as a technician for a Datsun dealership in Hays, Kan. I had no formal technical education, but I had a passion for all things technical. At that point in time I was totally self-taught. Soon after joining Datsun I accompanied my fellow technicians on a trip to another Datsun dealer in Pratt, Kan., where I experienced my first automotive training event (we learned about the new fuel-injected 280Z). I was hooked. I have spent the rest of my life seeking the new, learning to understand the simple and the complex, and trying to perfect my understanding of the basics. My primary education from that point forward did include factory training a few times a year, but – mainly – consisted of reading a minimum of two hours every evening.
I read every service manual, training document and technical paper I could get my hands on. I subscribed to every magazine that featured technical articles and stacked them next to my spot on the couch. I took Mitchell manuals home and read them from cover to cover. I analyzed wiring diagrams until I fully understood how current flows and work was accomplished. In other words, I was committed. There are a couple other words that go along with this attitude, because you can’t become committed without them: the first is desire, followed closely by attitude. You must have the desire to be the best, whether it’s a technician or shop owner. And, you must have an enduring positive attitude to carry that desire forward consistently. Desire + Attitude = Commitment.
Today, I find it difficult to believe that a person with the same commitment I described above would be successful if they were to start from scratch. And that’s not simply because of the technologies, tooling and knowledge needed to service and repair modern vehicles. It is solely due to the way we, the aftermarket industry, treat those who do desire to enter our profession. Consider that most young techs who come out of a vocational program are faced with spending what seems like an eternity on the lube rack paying their dues so they get the chance to work on the line. If they last that long. Many shops continue to foster the flat rate system that creates a competitive atmosphere, at best, between technicians. Often, older technicians shun the mentoring responsibility and new guys are required to earn their way and figure it out on their own. As one of our industry’s leading vocational instructors, Sonny Reeves, was fond of saying, “We are the only industry that eats its young!”
It wasn’t always this way. In my formative years, I was lucky to be exposed to mentors who took me under their wings and offered encouragement and guidance that allowed me to be successful. Harley Veers owned the Bear Alignment shop in Stockton, Kan. He was a family friend who saw my interest in cars and invested time in me. Harley served as the Bear team lead at the Indianapolis 500 for more than 20 years and would drag me along as a young boy. He immersed me in technology, and today I can’t get enough.
Vern Herman ran a shop in downtown Hays, Kan. As a high school student, I would visit him because his son sold performance parts (I loved racing and would also visit Vern when trying to solve problems). His answer to any question I had was ‘never forget the basics. If you get to the point where the fundamentals of electricity, physics and chemistry become second nature, then solving problems becomes easy.’
Today, I see many young people coming into this industry and many who are already in the industry struggling. I don’t often see the desire and attitude needed to be fully committed to our craft. But unlike many who would blame these observations on the new generation, I fully believe this next generation has not committed because no one has chosen to invest in them. Invest in the time, attention, education and systems in your business that will foster a mentoring culture.
I fully believe that a technician, whether just entering the industry, having been on the lube rack for a year, having completed 1,000 brake jobs, or having spent 20 years in a flat rate shop, can commit in a way their employer never thought possible if they see a path to a better job, a happier day or an opportunity to grow. In other words, a technician will certainly commit to the training needed to meet their goals as well as their employer’s goals if there is someone committed to supporting their vision.
Let’s try to put together a list of best practices for technicians and shop owners that will lead to the growth of those who want to excel in automotive service. Yes, I included shop owners. The fast path to commitment is when both technician and shop owner buy in.
- Future technicians should ask to participate in high school internship programs where he or she has a chance to shadow journeyman technicians at local service facilities. Shadow all positions in the shop to experience the different potential career paths.
- Shop owners hosting interns should spend time with this young talent crop to provide encouragement about the opportunities available in the aftermarket industry, and also to look for a future employee to invest in.
- All technicians should seek out a mentor, no matter their level of experience. This could be a trainer or shop owner or fellow technician.
- All technicians should read with purpose, daily. Reading technical material prepares you for your daily work.
- All technicians should attend training – even if they have to pay for it themselves. Technicians should consider training as a tool, and they should invest in this tool in the same way they do with their hand tools and diagnostic equipment.
- All technicians should seek to master the basics. This does not mean learning everything in the book. It means observing and exercising your understanding of fundamentals, to allow you to find direction in complex situations.
- All technicians should seek to teach. Teaching comes in a variety of forms, from a trainer or vocational instructor, but also from serving simply as a mentor. Commitment in the context of this training discussion should be paid forward. Plus, you will know that you have mastered the basics when you can teach the basics effectively.
Please don’t consider this a complete list. These best practices are the building blocks to the success of any technician and to our industry. If you have comments or additions, please reach out to me.