Technicians of the future

“Our biggest focus for the past couple years has been training the ‘youngsters’ for lack of a better word, the technicians of the future,” remarks Judi Haglin of Haglin Automotive, the Top Shop of 2015. With the Millennial generation now beginning to enter the work force, shop owners face new challenges—and perhaps new solutions.

Automotive technology has advanced at such an accelerated rate that training has become the purview and prerogative of the repair shop. “Twenty years ago you learned about computerized carburetors and you were done,” laughs Doug Whiteman, owner of George’s Sierra Shell, the 2014 Top Shop. “Then it used to be you’d learn about a system and that would last you three or four years. Stuff is changing so rapidly now we’re going to be doing yearly training, probably for the rest of our lives. In my opinion, just the last two to five years has become more intense, and you have to stay ahead of the curve.”

Douglas Whiteman leads a regular briefing and training session with George’s Sierra Shell technicians.

Heather Stanton of George’s Sierra Shell attends ATI’s shop owners and leadership training at Baltimore.

To help facilitate this, parts retailers and auto manufacturers offer seminars, clinics and classes, which works great for shop owners like Whiteman, who’s based in Fontana, CA. “Auto Zone, NAPA, Star Auto Parts–which is big on the West Coast–we do a lot of individual training just in the area of Southern California here. We’ve also done electrical training, beginner and advanced; (the latter) is a two-night process.”

Co-owner of 25th Street Automotive in Phoenix, AZ, Bill Coniom concurs. “Besides the training from the manufacturers and the aftermarket, we stay on a real informal communicative basis with some of the training people as Facebook friends, so that whenever (new information comes up), I’ll let the class become available to the staff. “

“It’s not necessarily even the traditional ‘here’s a diagnostic class, give it to my diagnostician,’” Coniom continues. “I’ve got two young technicians, one in the early stages of certification and the other an apprentice who mops floors; I send them both to those classes, because I believe it’s important to their development, no matter where their career takes them. We do expect that if you’re a full time employee, you should enroll in and complete a minimum of 35 hours a year, but we pretty much never shut it off. If they’re willing to do it, I’ll pay them to do it.”

In the last few years Doug Whiteman has also attended trade shows like Automechanika in Chicago. “I took myself and my two diagnostic techs,” he reports. “There were some real good classes there: basic and advanced hybrid training, GM Duramax, the cam network, AC diagnosis, advanced driveability through Lexus; at about three hours each we didn’t have the time to catch all of the ones we wanted.”

John Haunfelder of Jerry’s Automotive Services also attended Chicago, an easier proposition since he’s only a couple hours away in Waukesha, WI. “We try to hit the bigger ones like Automechanika,” he explains. “If we play it right, we can catch a lot of those classes in our area. We’ve been doing more in-shop meetings, typically once a month, adjacent to whatever seminars are available.

(photo courtesy of Pat Haunfelder) Jerry’s Automotive owner, John Haunfelder, conducting car theft system training with GM MDI.

(photo courtesy of Pat Haunfelder) Jerry’s Automotive’s in-house GM theft system clinic.

“I get my crew together and if there’s a new piece of equipment they’re not comfortable with, we’ll go over it, do our due diligence ahead of time,” Haunfelder continues. “Somebody will get up to speed on it and pass all the info on, and we’ll work with the equipment, use it on several cars. The guys can ask questions of one another, they can show one another, and it’s been a very good tool.”

But not all shops can afford to take the time or money to attend various classes and clinics, or like Haunfelder, find some approaching a point of diminishing returns. “My younger techs get more, but my older techs will only get a few items out of them,” he reports. “The training needs to be valid. If a technician is working all day and training at night, you’ve got to give this guy something, you’ve got to stimulate him. A trainer should look into what would make these guys’ eyes light up, engage them. You can’t just waltz them through it. These guys are smart and they need more.”

Some shops are resorted to more on-site training, using technology to teach technology. “We’ll buy a training video for $150, and seven or eight of us will watch it,” says Haunfelder. “We may have a car with a similar system; we’ll run it in, spend a couple hours on the video, then spend another hour under the car. Later if a tech’s a little fuzzy on that system, he can take it home, or if he needs to go over something for a certification test, he can do that too.”

Likewise Whiteman uses video training, tele-seminars and YouTube how-tos at his California shop. “We do a lot of video training, tele-seminars, that kind of stuff, so we have a training room upstairs with a 30” TV,” he explains. “There are several parts to my training; we have three full time techs and two apprentices right now, and we have a kind of individual plan on each person depending on where they are with their level of expertise or education. Then we split that up; sometimes two of them will do it together, sometimes all of them will do it, sometimes individually, depending on where each person is.”

Many of these apprentices and younger techs are more than likely Millennials. Generally defined as anyone born between 1982 and 2000, they are the first generation to grow up during the Information Age, having been totally immersed in computer technology from birth.

“The majority of my crew are Millennials,” notes Judi Haglin. “What I keep hearing when I go to conferences are how Millennials are different, that they’re not a good work force. For ours and older generations we eat and sleep business, we ‘live to work.’ For Millennials maybe it’s a little bit different; they’re very technologically advanced, they adapt to it very well, but when they’re done, they’re done. They’re ‘working to live.’

“But the cool part is that they want to learn and help each other learn,” Haglin continues. “It’s said that Millennials are more team oriented, like baby-boomers, and we are really seeing that. I’ve got two who work as a tag team; if they’re working on brakes and ball joints, one will take left, the other right. They split the labor, they check each other’s work, they get it done. It’s a very different culture, not cutthroat at all.”

Instead of having a senior master tech train them, Haglin observes that Millennials have different ways of getting information via the Internet. “There is so much more info out there,” she says, “and where Millennials excel is they know how to tap into that. When they go to school they rebuild a motor; that’s great, they know and they’ve done it once. They’ve done brakes several times. But in the real world they need to figure out all the systems, because we work on everything. It’s a lot to learn; AllData is a huge resource for them.”

Judi and husband Dana Haglin have been very proactive in training their crew, starting with the hiring process. “We do a behavioral test of what their aptitudes are, what they want out of a career, if they want to grow and learn,” Judi explains. “And we’re right there with them, giving them all the tools that they need–because we’ve reclassified ourselves as a ‘learning facility.’”

Working with the CarQuest Technical Institute (CTI), the Haglins have been beta testing—i.e., real world exposure–a core curriculum for novice technicians who have already passed several ASE tests. “It covers the basics,” Judi explains. “ASE tests can pull some of that information out of them, but we sometimes forget when we move a guy up from lube tech and have him change out a brake master cylinder, he may not understand how brake fluid and the cylinder all works mechanically.”

According to Haglin, the first year of classes includes online courses through CTI’s TACS program. This in turn preps students for instructor-led classes. Their retention and use of information as well as overall progress is tracked through online tests and evaluations. Each technician has their own course track, which can easily work from any electronic device.

“Because everyone learns at different speeds and levels, you have to look at where they are, where they want to go and how can we help them get there,” outlines Haglin, for training can sometimes transcend work to encapsulate a career.

As Dana TePoel of Lake Arbor Automotive elaborates, “my employees can take classes on really any topic that’s going to help them succeed in life, so I pay for courses like time management, investment strategies, what does their retirement look like. I started this company 23 years ago and I’ve learned that to keep the best employees, they have to have to be successful in life first.”


Technicians of the future