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Tips on how shops can help auto/diesel schools

March 6, 2023
Technical schools and industry shops and dealers know they need to work together to address the technician shortage, but how to specifically do so may vary.

As the technician shortage remains poised to cause even more problems for shops, one of the most common refrains in meeting this challenge is that vocational and trade schools need help from the industry.

“We are hearing, unfortunately, that programs are constantly inadequate and basically put on the chopping block because of a lack of student enrollments, lack of books, or a lack of an administration that believes in our programs,” said Brendon Eckenrode, the managing director of the Collision Repair Education Foundation (CREF) at the Fall 2022 HD Repair Forum.

Unfortunately, the consensus is that this support for education is not very forthcoming.

According to WrenchWay, a business that focuses on connecting auto technicians with shops and promoting the profession at large, 76% of technicians do not think their shop does enough to help schools attract more students into technician programs. Paired with this, 84% of technicians think high schools discourage students from entering the trades.

With numbers like that, it’s clear that the industry can, and should, do more to work with automotive schools to create a pipeline of talent that benefits them both. For many fleet and shop managers, the question may only be how.

In a  recent webinar, Jay Goninen, co-founder and president of WrenchWay, talked about the best practices to work with schools with various stakeholders to find some answers. These included Tara Topel, owner of Topel’s Towing & Repair; Lindsey Trett, Director of Talent AcquisitionsWalser Automotive Group; Brad Walker, automotive technology director, Oklahoma City Community College (OCCC); and Randy Golding, automotive instructor, Western Maricopa Education Center (West-MEC).

Current industry support

Goninen opened the conversation with an overview from his peers on how much support educational institutions currently receive from the industry overall. Unfortunately, whether or not a school can rely on the businesses in their jurisdiction can vary widely depending on their geographical location and the size of the businesses. But typically, they reported that larger companies have an easier time getting involved, especially through pre-established programs.

Read more: How to build a solid technician pipeline

“As far as industry support, the three main manufacturers that we’re getting support from are Ford, Toyota, and Subaruthey have been great,” Golding reported. “As far as the independent side, Big Brand Tires is coming on. But as far as a lot of the local shops, not so much... There are a lot of dealerships that just do not have time to function in our advisory, to function even in a job shadow situation where all they have to do is allow a student to show up.”

Similarly, Walker noted that OCCC has received strong support from companies already has a relationship with, particularly through two critical programs: the General Motors Automotive Service Educational Program (ASEP) and the Honda Professional Automotive Career Training (PACT) program.

ASEP provides students with an associate degree in applied sciences and a General Motors Training History through General Motors (GM) courses while also requiring the student to work in a GM dealership for more experience. Meanwhile, the PACT program allows students to become both Honda and Acura-certified technicians, building their skills and preparing them to enter the workforce directly.

“All the [General Motors] dealers in the Oklahoma City area come to us at the beginning,” Walker observed. “The really good ones don't wait for the beginning of the school year. In August; they will start calling [in February], saying ‘Send me your next round of students."

He said when he returns to those shops, "it's like an alumni association meeting, because there're so many of our graduates there.”

Walker did note that he occasionally works with independent shops as well. But there are significantly fewer of them that will take students at the beginning of their education and work with them for the entire two years necessary to earn their degree.

The result of this system, for both schools, is that the companies that are deeply entrenched in their automotive programs are the ones who hire most of their graduating classes.

“Now, I can tell you that last week, [my coworker and I] sent out 84 students to 30 dealerships, and the dealerships that have sent service managers or shop foremen to our advisory meetings or come and speak [to classes] seem to attract those students,” Golding emphasized. “Case in point, out of those 84 students, 50 of them went to five different Ford dealerships and six different Toyota dealerships… And being that this is the first week of February, I can almost etch it in concrete that I know where the majority of our seniors are going after high school now.”

Walker echoed this phenomenon of his best students getting snapped up very quickly, leaving shops and dealers who are involved with too little, too late when they reach out for technicians in the spring.

“The best and the brightest have already been working for two years and are about to graduate and really, really like where they are because [their employers] have supported them through the entire two-year journey,” Walker explained.

However, in fairness to smaller, independent shops, Topel mentioned the resource distribution between larger businesses and dealerships is also unbalanced, impacting their ability to get involved with schools.

“I've been to career fairs at the technical schools, and I am next to large dealerships,” Topel described. “And there are other large companies that have huge pocketbooks that I just couldn't even come anywhere close to competing [with] as far as that recruiting end. And there is where we see independents do need a lot of help, both from the suppliers and from the manufacturers.”

Best practices for educational engagement

So, what options are there to support schools that even smaller shops can do, options that preferably don’t lean on vast financial resources? Trett reminded the table that providing knowledge and time be economically flexible resources to provide to schools, especially when introducing the industry to younger students.

Supporting schools “starts very early on,” Trett said. “It’s from middle school and up… just being a big believer in early talent, it is up to us to grow these students from the schools from within.”

This can mean something as small as going to a middle school to speak to students about career paths or explaining how a manager or technician got into the industry in the first place. This is all in service of developing new talent early on in the technician pipeline.

Connecting with public schools that may not be automotive-focused is especially critical for independent shops, particularly if they’re in an area where technical classes are scarce or geographically remote.

“For me, it does get a little frustrating because, in my town, there is no automotive program,” Topel explained. “So, if you are a high schooler in Lake Mills, Wisconsin, and you want to go into the automotive industry, you now have to commit to going outside of town, about a 15-minute drive, every Wednesday night to be able to go to the automotive class.”

This is where flexibility and adaptability in getting involved with schools is a boon, and independent shops can best invest in their future workforce by connecting directly with them, whether that’s via a class, a shop tour, or an apprenticeship. 

“[Being] willing to come in and guest speak or even help co-teach a class [is great], we've done this with some Ford dealerships where we've had multi-point inspection days where were they bring in some cars and they show students how to do a multi-point inspection,” Golding described. “Again, we're asking for an hour or two of your time. You come in, and you talk a little bit about your business, you do a little class, [and] the students will pick up.”

But shops and dealers are not limited to meeting with students. Introducing public school administrators such as counselors and student parents can be equally as impactful.

“When I go recruit at high school career tech centers, I have a service manager or service managers come with me to discuss the profession and the earning potential,” Walker said.

Sometimes, he’ll even meet with students even younger than high school, or not even in a classroom.

“One of the things that we've done is we've started trying to reach potential students before they even get to high school,” Walker continued. “We run a Boy Scout badge camp and a Girl Scout badge camp, [too].”

Smaller activities such as these are far more reasonable for independent shops, the webinar participants noted. They can be as easy as providing pizza while exposing kids to the automotive trade and the knowledge that they have options beyond a four-year college career after high school.

Impart wisdom...or just give parts

If shops and dealers cannot provide personnel support, they can still offer help in parts and components.

“Getting components like transmissions, engines, [things that] may be junk to you as an independent shop or a dealership, but it may be something we desperately need,” Walker explained.

But before shops go running to their local technical school to offload the parts languishing at the back of the shop, they have to communicate properly, first.

“You have to ask; don't just assume that because Brad needs components that you can take your components to the local school,” Topel noted. “You need to ask and then you need to listen to what it is that they're looking for.”

This specificity in communication can help shops and dealers leverage their resources, particularly when they take the time to understand why a school needs a particular vehicle or part.

“I can better facilitate [a school’s needs] through a manufacturer, through our parts distributor, [if I know] it's this car for this brand for this purpose for this class, and understand the program of the needs behind it. That helps me a ton,” Trett said. “Tell me more. And I can go deeper and usually facilitate that a little easier.”

Well-meaning communications and inventory managers just also need to remember that schools can oftentimes be limited in donations that they can accept. In that regard, both Golding and Walker found success in impermanent possession.

“Things on loan, things that are being borrowed can go through some of the red tape,” Golding explained. “Borrowing is what I found works the best.” At least, as long as the educational institution is certified by the ASE Education Foundation.

Put simply, much of the help that the industry can offer the technical schools supplying their technicians is by showing up, and recognizing that the relationship between institutions and shops can no longer be a one-sided one. It must be a consistent exchange because ultimately, schools and the industry exist to help each other.

“Because there are so many [independent shops], I don't have time to reach out to all of them,” Walker said. “But the problem is, half of them don't know I'm here. When there are people on my campus that don't even know what I do, how can I expect somebody five miles away to know that I'm here to help?”

About the Author

Alex Keenan

Alex Keenan is an Associate Editor for Fleet Maintenance magazine. She has written on a variety of topics for the past several years and recently joined the transportation industry, reviewing content covering technician challenges and breaking industry news. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. 

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