Why Interns Are a Must

Believe it or not, they could be the key to the future of your shop – and the future of your industry.

For those of you who don’t know me, my wife, Deb, and I started ASA-Massachusetts in 1993 while owning and operating Van Batenburg’s Garage Inc. (VBG).

As a 26-year-old in 1977, I started VBG and, in 1998, launched the Automotive Career Development Center (ACDC). VBG specialized in Honda and Toyota, and we brought in many high school interns. But after 26 years, I closed VBG to spend more time at home and continue to grow ACDC, which is known for its hybrid training.

Many people don’t know, though, that Deb and I started our training careers in automotive management and that we author articles for various automotive publications, including serving as frequent contributors to AutoInc. Today, Deb also is a part-time teacher at Job Corps, a federally funded system of trade schools that help 16- to 23-year-olds continue their education and life skills.

I mention all that background so you’ll understand that this article comes from our personal experience. As Honda/Toyota specialists, we would take a high school student with a good attitude and provide them with a toolbox full of tools, an internship (paid), uniforms, coaching and experience. But that was decades ago. Now, we in the industry need something new. We suggest that you think about “adopting” interns as family.

Apprenticeship vs. internship

If you’ve run a shop for any amount of time, you know that finding and keeping good help is always near the top of your to-do list. Last summer, I went to a great event in North Carolina and attended classes when I wasn’t teaching. The instructor was quite controversial, as his topic was recruiting technicians for our shops.

The word “poaching” was used many times as the number one way shops acquire good, experienced techs. Some people in the class were offended, but the truth is that we’ve been poaching for decades. If your shop is mature and stable, then you may not need to hire a tech very often. But eventually, it’ll be necessary.

When you look at statistics and historical data, it’s helpful to determine if a trend is developing that you might have missed. But doing this doesn’t solve any problems. Just like preventive maintenance on a car, your shop needs regular stops along the way to plan for the future.

Ask yourself this question: Do you know the name of your local trade school teacher? If the answer is no, your shop is not ready for an intern. But you can get ready.

Interns exchange work for experience. It can be paid or un-paid, but this is a way that young people can determine if they have an interest in automotive repair technology, get to know people in our industry and gain credit for their education.

If they’re lucky, some interns will wind up in jobs at the shop where they’ve served their internship. However, unlike apprenticeships, employment at the completion of an internship is not guaranteed.

Shops also can bring in college interns. ACDC has been doing this for a few years with great results. “We’ve had an active internship program through Mt. Hood Community College since 1996,” says Jim Houser of Hawthorne Auto Clinic Inc., an ASA member-shop in Portland, Ore. “Growing your own staff gives both the shop and the employee the best opportunity to develop their full potential.”

Our internship program is open to males and females, but so far we’ve only had men. But I often remark to Deb that our interns feel like our sons coming home from college for the summer.

The ACDC intern program

In 2007, ACDC bought a three-family home located just a block from where we live in a blue-collar neighborhood in Worcester, Mass. Called a triple-decker and built in 1905, this home serves as our office and houses four interns. We lowered the rent for two men who live on the third floor, and they both help out at ACDC. One is a military veteran and the other a retired college professor with his Ph.D. in nuclear physics.

The college interns receive free room and board, a car to drive, an education in hybrid vehicles and the use of our training center. The housing allows ACDC to bring interns in from colleges all over the United States. We also work with a local internship program of high school graduates. Their program provides housing and job coaching as they explore the auto repair business as a career. We meet with their counselors to discuss their progress and potential.

“Don’t be afraid to turn them loose on a project,” says Matt Overbeck of Cincinnati Hybrids, an ASA member-shop in Cincinnati, Ohio. “Sometimes, they’re placed with one of the technicians to shadow and assist in completing whatever job they’re on. Other times, they’re given bigger jobs to do, anything from removing a hybrid battery, downloading codes or removing a water pump. I’m always amazed at their enthusiasm to ‘own’ a job.”

ACDC provides all the tools, books and virtually everything they need. Most have never lived outside their homes, so Deb and I help by eating dinner with them Monday through Friday nights. The internship usually lasts eight weeks, but some have been longer. What’s in it for ACDC?

This program is in its third year, and we’ve had the training center cleaned and painted. Research has been performed on our fleet of 19 hybrid and electric cars. We’ve also purchased used parts, which we’ve carefully disassembled. Many hours of scanning have helped our company understand more about what we teach.

The interns set up and take down our mobile classroom and assist at the training center. It’s pure joy to help a young person find their way in life. Could a shop like yours do what ACDC has done? Absolutely. And with less expense than you might think.

How much education

There’s an old saying “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” You cannot learn everything you need from a book, and that’s where hands-on, no-pressure training plays a big part.

My personal experience tells me a community college that offers an associate degree in automotive science and technology is the best education for a young person’s money. If they’re motivated, they also can earn a bachelor’s degree.

“It seems like a cliché, but attitude determines altitude,” says Dutch Silverman, A&M Auto Service LLC in Pineville, N.C. “I’d rather mentor an intern who may not possess great mechanical ability, but gives me 110 percent, than an intern who thinks he knows it all. It’s either innate or learned through experience.”

With great teachers, work experience while in school and desire, a smart student can do well. They might also be lucky enough to be the son or daughter of a shop owner. With family involvement and college, they can build a great career.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that, “Service technicians who have graduated from post-secondary programs in automotive service technology generally require little on-the-job training.” They could not be more wrong. On-the-job training never ends, and training requires a good foundation, which is college.

The six-point plan

I teach a six-day class called “Up Your Voltage.” In fact, it was taking place while I was writing this article. So we talked about this subject. I listened to many stories from successful techs, and we discussed the ups and downs of getting into the business. Then, I offered my six-point plan for what’s not working.

Generally speaking, auto techs think they’re not making enough money, and shops are having a harder time than ever attracting and keeping them. Cars are more complex, and even dealerships have a hard time repairing their own brand.

So there are three areas that need to change the way they operate: the government, the repair industry (OEMs and independent shops) and schools. And here’s the six-point plan:

1

The government should require licensed techs in shops.

2

The government should make “flat rate” illegal.

3

The government should make four-year, auto-shop courses in community colleges free and required for a master-tech license.

4

Repair shops should provide intern and apprenticeship programs.

5

Repair shops should supply all tools and toolboxes.

6

Public schools and colleges should have universal automotive-education programs from the 8th grade through a bachelor’s degree.

If the government acts, licensing will eventually drive the illegal and incompetent shops out of business. Techs’ paychecks will be consistent, and quality work will trump fast work. Paychecks will reward great work and not dishonest or one-sided pay schemes. The work will be much better because the techs will have the training before learning on the job.

But the partnership between shops and schools is the key. Shops must have licensed techs and get rid of “flat rate” as we know it so that quality work is now front-and-center, where it always should have been. By suppling the tools, the techs will take home more money by not giving the tool sellers part of their weekly paychecks.

Providing tools can’t be a “law,” so not every shop will do it. But those that do will keep their techs. Without their own tools, techs will be less likely to leave you, and why would they leave you anyway because, clearly, you’re on their side.

Techs that love their jobs can mentor and bring along new techs because you supply the tools when other shops do not. As an added benefit, you’ll be able to hire a poor kid with a rich brain.

“To be patient, observant and keep expectations low are the keys,” says Rusty Savignac, a shop owner for 41 years in Paxton, Mass. “Every aspiring tech has strengths and weaknesses, and it’s up to us to cultivate their strengths and minimize their weaknesses with supervision and training.”

The local high school and community college also will benefit. Their funding will go up as licensing is required. Shops that partner with the high school and really get involved can bring in an intern, and, when the best match is made, hire them and help them along the way. The school will now have more shops on their advisory boards that will be aware of the type of support needed. After years, not weeks, this young star will be “job ready” when they get their master-tech license. They can go right to work as an apprentice and be productive much sooner than later.

“I had an intern from Worcester Technical High School,” says George Sotiropoulos, owner of Bravo Motors in Worcester, Mass. “Great work ethic, and he was more knowledgeable than most students from a local private tech school. Worcester Tech is doing a great job teaching these kids.”

All three areas – government, shops and schools – must do their part in revamping the current system. Over time, the automotive service repair industry will mature into a high-skilled job path that anyone in America can aspire to attain, no matter their economic circumstances.

A better world

Full disclosure: The six-point plan was “poached.” I’ve spent 12 weeks teaching in the Netherlands over the past 10 years, and I’ve hosted more than 140 Dutch automotive teachers here in the states. This plan is how the Dutch solved their tech-hiring problems.

If the six-point plan is put into place, your customers will have a better repair experience, and techs will be safer in the workplace because every tech will be training in high-voltage systems as they become more common. Repair shops and dealerships will have the workforce they need for the future.

ACDC works with a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that helps foster boys who will age out of the system. The six-point plan can work for them. Prisoners can go to college in many states now, and they would have a good chance of not becoming repeat offenders if this program were in effect.

Big ideas? Sure, but they’re doable. Are you ready for a change? Poaching hasn’t worked. Our tech-education system needs your help.

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