As Sarah Price and Cindy Weinberg take their turns at the podium, they address the store managers, the mentors, the company’s CEO in attendance.
Oh, and we can’t forget the most important guests: the employees who have just graduated from Virginia Tire & Auto’s apprenticeship program.
“My message to everyone is to keep learning,” Weinberg says, thinking back on that day. “The learning is never over.”
“I tell them that they accomplished this goal,” Price adds, “and they are going to have many more goals to accomplish.”
You’ll note a core message shared between the training manager (Price) and director of talent development (Weinberg) just before they hand out graduation certificates to the former apprentices: there’s a culture of learning at Virginia Tire & Auto. In order for the 13-location auto repair business to cultivate lifelong employees, its apprenticeship program must do more than coach young technicians and service advisors on the basics of the business—it must present auto repair as a viable, fulfilling career.
And that’s where apprenticeship programs trip many shop owners up, says Wayne Martella. With two apprentices always on rotation between his four AAMCO shops in Mesa, Ariz., he knows how difficult it can be to not only oversee an apprenticeship, but also to ensure mentees are getting the full picture of the industry, and ensure that mentors are properly cultivating future leaders. From the moment apprentices walk into your shop to the moment they become full-time professionals, you must build a foundation for them to thrive.
Luckily, if you follow advice from people well versed in the practice, you’ll be ready to build a better future for your shop—a better future for the industry.
Part 1: Create a Funnel
If the automotive repair industry categorizes wannabe professionals as hindrances, it won’t truly connect with those interested in a career—a truth the TechForce Foundation deeply understands.
Jennifer Maher is the CEO of TechForce, a nonprofit that guides students through a technical education into the automotive industry. She’s seen firsthand how apprenticeships are an important component of an evolving, growing business—but she’s also witnessed why many of them fail:
“You can’t just set up a program and expect people to walk in.”
While there are currently 5.8 million unfilled trade openings in this country (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), Dr. Sally Downey says a proper education funnel can reverse that trend. And as the superintendent of the East Valley Institute of Technology (EVIT)—which set up more high school students with jobs than any other U.S. program—she should understand that more than anyone.
“Students need the real deal,” she says. “They can learn in the classroom, but being in a business is part of the experience they need to have.”
EVIT, situated in Eastern Arizona, is a public education system that hosts more than 40 career training programs, ranging from culinary arts to health care to, yes, automotive repair. Through those programs, roughly 240 automotive students from 10 school districts each year will simultaneously attend high school and receive two years of career training through area businesses—including Martella’s AAMCO shops.
As three individuals consumed with guiding students into a profession, Maher, Downey and Martella have some advice for ensuring there’s a steady stream of employees ready for your shop’s apprenticeship program.
Partner with Shops.
Downey says EVIT is the only high school in the East Valley of Arizona certified by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation (NATEF), which allows the school to effectively communicate with area businesses.
The thing is, auto repair shops need to be willing to collaborate—and NATEF can help facilitate that.
NATEF helps schools form local advisory committees of industry professionals, bridging the gap between education and industry. The area shops on Martella’s advisory board host students at various apprenticeships throughout the year, exposing those students to different systems, processes and specializations.
“We help the EVIT curriculum stay current with the aftermarket,” he says. “It allows us to talk with students and their parents from early high school through their senior year in high school, and reassure them that working in automotive trade is not a bad thing.”
Connect with Counselors, Parents.
You won’t reach any students if they’re being deterred from trades altogether by parents and counselors, who often believe a traditional four-year university is the only prosperous route, Maher says.
“The industry should pull those parents and counselors in, engage them, let them not forget they are vitally important to fuel future tech workforce,” she says. “We have to paint the picture for them with career opportunities and dispel those myths.”
Maher says it’s important to be upfront about how pay structures work in shops and how much students can make in the profession. Also, play up how sophisticated cars have become, and how vehicle repair requires a deep understanding of electrical and computing systems.
Martella loves attending career days, where he can talk to both students and parents about the opportunities the trade presents. He’s sure to talk up the continuous education available and the higher-than-expected salaries kids can aspire to earn.
“I have A-techs making over $100,000,” he says. “The old stigma of the grease monkey is gone. Techs today need to be very literate, computer savvy. If your son or daughter is not college bound, I tell them it’s OK to be in the automotive industry.”
Provide Equipment to Students.
In order for EVIT’s six automotive teachers to properly train students for the real world, Downey says they need the best equipment.
Luckily, used equipment donated from shops often comes in handy. Everything from scan tools to scrapped engines goes a long way in getting students shop-ready at EVIT.
As an incentive, EVIT encourages businesses to apply for a tax credit for donating equipment. Unlike a regular deduction that only allows you to subtract the contribution from your taxable income, a tax credit is a dollar-for-dollar deduction in the actual tax owed.
TechForce Foundation’s iHub
Solving the employee crisis isn’t a one-man job—and that’s why TechForce Foundation wants to connect all the important players through one centralized hub.
“The industry doesn’t need us to create apprenticeship programs,” CEO Jennifer Maher says of her nonprofit that guides students through a technical education into the automotive industry. “It needs us to find where those great programs are, and promote them to parents and students and shops.”
The result has been iHub (which stands for “industry hub”), TechForce’s collection of best practices from automotive companies (including automotive repair organizations and shops) from around country for promoting students into the industry.
Part 2: Form a Gameplan
Greg Settle would really like to delve into the structure of the actual apprenticeship once the student is in the shop—but there’s one bit of preparation he needs to stress first.
“You need a written plan to follow,” says TechForce’s director of national initiatives. “What tasks you’ll be covering, and what information they’ll be learning.”
Settle recommends closely following the NATEF guidelines for apprenticeships, and creating SOPs for how the apprenticeship process will work for mentors, apprentices and the person overseeing both parties (e.g., the shop owner). Meet with your team to determine your shop’s strengths and to discuss which skills are most essential to people looking to break into the industry. Map out a timeline that moves students between various specialties and tasks to give them a rounded view of daily shop life.
Luckily, to help, Settle has noted what typically works best for an apprenticeship program, while Price, Weinberg and Martella have outlined their shops’ programs for Ratchet+Wrench. While this isn’t an exact outline of one single program, the following gameplan generally covers the consistencies between several businesses and how apprentices are properly onboarded, trained and acclimated into shop life.
On a quarterly basis, Virginia Tire & Auto reviews applicants to its apprenticeship program. They are evaluated, and if chosen, then paired with a Master Technician.
Based on the apprentice’s skill level, the length of the apprenticeship can vary. If a tech student shows promise, but needs a couple more years of experience, the time frame may vary from someone who is out of school.
If the apprentice is splitting time between school and the shop, Martella will have him or her come in after school a few days per week, and sometimes even work half-days on Saturdays (since his shop is open). Often, that part-time apprenticeship will segue into a full-time apprenticeship during summer break, or if the individual graduates.
From there, Martella says the technician’s graduation from C- or D-level positions depends entirely on the apprentice’s aptitude. An apprenticeship can last anywhere from 3 months to one year before the apprentice is moved into a permanent position.
This is where apprentices review the company’s basic daily tasks, and various detailed shop processes. Basic processes involve everything after the client drops off his or her vehicle. The advisor gets the information, then dispatches the technician’s work, and then walks him or her through all the way to the end of the actual customer vehicle process.
Detailed processes include:
- A comprehensive vehicle inspection process
- The repair order
- Software functionality
- Repair ticket schedules
- Properly formatting estimates and notes
The shop also reviews the software for technician resources, including diagnostic processes, the vehicle test drive procedures and checking fluids.
Here, apprentices put all these processes and procedures they’ve been trained on into practice. As they do this, their mentors will watch them, guide them, prepare them, and perfect their quality control.
During the first year at Virginia Tire & Auto, Price says that apprentices specifically focus on four service items:
- Steering and suspension
- Air conditioning
- Engine repair
If the apprentice shows promise at Martella’s shop, he or she will upgrade to more sophisticated duties, such as diagnostics.
This is the final step before apprentices are on their own. The trainee will work alongside the trainer for several months, applying the knowledge from the previous steps.
The trainee will have each step of the process verified for accuracy before moving on to the next step. The mentor will judge how much freedom he or she is allowed based on skills and work ethic.
At this point, apprentices are expected to have done the necessary research and preparation to know the car before it comes in. They check it properly, they test drive it—all the duties a full-time employee is expected to perform.
Once they prove they can do that, they’re ready to operate on their own.
Determine the Payment Structure
Every source quoted in this story echoes the same sentiment: You need to pay your apprentices.
While an “apprenticeship” is often viewed differently than an “internship,” Cindy Weinberg, director of talent development for Virginia Tire & Auto, says that often apprentices are looking for longevity and supporting families, and a lack of compensation could turn many of them off.
Sarah Price, training manager for Virginia Tire, says that the company even pays for ASE certification, study guides and online automotive tech training courses when necessary. The company will also offer interest-free loans to apprentices to purchase tools. Those loans come straight out of employee paychecks.
It’s even important to consider compensating your mentors, who will have to juggle teaching and their regular work. To help, the TechForce Foundation is developing a payment calculator on its website that dictates how much both parties should be paid, how many hours will be flagged during the mentorship, and what income each party will accrue over time. Stay posted for a link when it’s published.
Part 3: Onboard Apprentices
With this gameplan, you’ll have outlined an apprenticeship blueprint for both parties, meaning you can properly set expectations for both employees and students ahead of the process.
At Martella’s shop, the apprentices sit down for an orientation on the first day, where they review the company policies, the facility, the tools, the resources available, the parts processes, and the technician responsibilities in an employee handbook. That includes everything from hiring forms to a facility tour. There are regular evaluations that test the apprentices’ knowledge on these processes.
Settle says apprentices should be expected to recall shop basics:
- Can you state our core values and philosophies?
- Can you prove you can keep yourself organized?
- Are you managing personal volume levels?
- Can you identify the location of the diagnostic equipment?
- Do you know to properly use the lifts, spring compressors, presses and flush tools?
And while your employees will help shape the apprenticeship blueprint, they—just like the students—will still need to be properly “onboarded,” meaning they’ll need training and advice for how to mentor students.
Price says that Virginia Tire & Auto is blessed with many master techs, who only need a tiny bit of guidance on how to properly train apprentices. Still, Price travels to the company’s 13 different locations throughout the year to check in with apprentices and mentors to ensure apprentices are making forward progress and train master techs on how to be good mentors. Price encourages patience with mentees and asks them to set expectations each day so apprentices have something to work toward.
Many automotive repair shop owners fear the liabilities associated with minors working at their facilities, says Greg Settle, director of national initiatives for TechForce Foundation.
But if simple precautions are considered, it shouldn’t be a problem, says David Whitney, vice president of the retail profit center at Zurich Insurance, which works with shops and dealerships.
He provided some important legal advice for forming apprenticeship programs:
- Apprentices should be subject to the same employment standards in place for all other employees, including appropriate background checks, motor vehicle report checks and drug testing.
- Minors should be prohibited from operating vehicles under any circumstance.
- Apprentices should receive all appropriate new hire training offered to other employees, including how to properly handle flammable liquids, machinery and other equipment.
- Host anti-discrimination and harassment prevention training, with documentation verifying this and kept in the apprentice’s personnel file.
- If you host students for tours, properly train individuals who will be responsible for said tours. Create a written checklist that outlines the tour route and addresses any hazards one may encounter during the tour.
Part 4: Monitor the Apprenticeship
Maher has overseen marketing and headed corporate alliances at both YMCA and Make-A-Wish America, where she observed the importance of higher-level planning on a national scale from an executive level.
But, at the end of the day, she acknowledges it’s really all about those small, intimate relationships that go on to reshape lives.
“One person can make a difference,” she says. “If one person exposes them to the career, it can completely alter their life. That’s why apprenticeship programs are so important.”
The apprentice applicants are interviewed by available mentors and paired accordingly. Then, when an applicant is placed in the apprentice program, he or she begins working with the mentor and at the first hands-on monthly training is provided with a packet that includes an “Individual Development Plan” and tips for communicating with mentors. Within that packet, mentors and mentees outline three goals for the first year of the apprenticeship.
From there, Sarah works with the master tech to deliver hands on training to apprentices once a month, visits the individual apprentices in the stores, and meets quarterly with the apprentice, mentor and store leadership to review a scorecard on the apprentice’s progress in the program..
Often, because of this practice, mentees graduate from the program and become mentors themselves, creating a cycle that ensures Virginia Tire continually pumps out new quality employees as it continues to grow.
Travis Bean is the associate editor for FenderBender, Ratchet+Wrench and Fixed Ops Business.