What's Working - May - 2016

A New Dynamic for Today’s Transmission Shops

Over the years I’ve developed a specific reputation with GEARS readers; you see my byline and you figure I’m going to be talking about tech. Not all that surprising; after all, that’s a big part of my job with ATRA and GEARS.

But a lot of my time is spent talking to shop owners. Sure, they want to know that we’re providing great tech, but, as we’re talking, invariably the conversation gets around to something along these lines: “I can’t find qualified technicians for my shop. What is ATRA doing about that?”

It’s a fair question. After all, ATRA’s entire existence is based on our mandate to help transmission shops remain profitable. And it’s not easy to be profitable in transmission repair without qualified technicians.

Helping shops find qualified technicians has become such an important issue to ATRA’s Members that it’s become the focus of this year’s What’s Working program.

Being in tech, naturally my first thought is that we need to provide more training. We need more articles, more bulletins, more seminars, more webinars… more… more.

It’s a reasonable start, and it’s something we have to continue to build on, but it doesn’t address the primary problem facing our industry: There just aren’t enough qualified technicians available.

Sure, there are good technicians out there; some of the best ever. But they aren’t looking for work. Those qualified technicians are working for other shops, and they’re very happy where they are, thank you. They have very little interest in moving to a new shop.

That realization led to a startling conclusion: If there are no qualified, experienced technician’s available, maybe it’s time to rethink who you’re looking for to add to your staff.

Maybe the person you should be looking is a really good fit to begin the process of “grown your own”; someone you an train to fill the position you need to fill.

This isn’t a new new concept by any means. In fact, it’s the way I learned the business, as did the vast majority of us. It’s process called mentoring – where someone with more knowledge helps you gain the skills you need to do the job yourself.

And mentoring doesn’t require a teaching degree or a lot of experience. Very often it’s just about letting your trainee watch while you do the job. He hands you a wrench or grabs a meter, and you do the repair. Sometimes it involves captioning your work a little: “Make sure you connect this lead to a good ground before you make your checks or the reading won’t be right.Here a good place to connect it.

I started out pumping gas. It wasn’t long before my mentor had me changing oil and mounting tires. Eventually I took a job as a quick lube tech at a Ford dealership. From there it was just a matter of time before I started doing light repair, water pumps, valve cover gaskets, hoses and belts, and so on.

I built my first AXOD by following the steps in a shop manual, Step by step it took my three days to complete and it didn’t work because I left out the pump shaft! Several hours and a pump shaft later, I drove it down the road and I was on my way.

Each step on my journey took me a step closer to where I am now and. And each step was supervised by a mentor, who worked with me to make sure I learned to the job properly and move on to the next phase in my training. It’s not a unique story: Chance are your someone in your shop followed a similar path in your careers.

Don’t like the idea of training your own technicians? Are you one of those shops owners who worries that, “if I train them, they’ll just leave and find a job somewhere else”?

Someone mentioned that to Jim Cathcart when he first joined ATRA’s management training team. His response? “Afraid if you train them they might leave? What if you don’t train them and they stay?”

The mentality of hiring experienced technicians without having to train them might have worked 20 years ago, but today’s business environment won’t support it. In the last issue of GEARS, Dennis Madden renamed the idea of sticking with an old strategy after the environment changed: He called it the “Gilligan’s Island” business model. And, while the name certainly makes for a good laugh it’s no way to run a successful business.

Today’s market environment demands a new approach to staffing, one in which you take a leadership roll in educating your employees. Sure, it means an investment in terms of both time and money, but it does have an advantage over hiring employees in the image you want, instead of working your business model around the technicians you’ve hired.

Let’s take a look at two potential employees: We’ll call them Al and Bob (A and B, get it?)

Al is an experienced technician. He’s very knowledgeable and has many years of experience. He also has a bit of an attitude. He can afford to; he knows he can get a job any time he wants, which means he can be more demanding and less pliable than you might like. But he can do the job right out of the gate.

Bob is a young guy, pretty much fresh out of tech school. He’s worked a few jobs in auto repair, mostly changing oil and mounting tires; not much else. But he has a lot of book smarts, boundless energy, and a terrific attitude. He wants to learn… and grow. And he’s willing to adjust to your business model, whatever that involves.

Which one would you think is the better hire? Well, if you waited too long and were desperate, Al might be your only choice. You have to have a qualified technician if you’re going to keep running your shop, so you may be forced to build your new business model around Al’s attitude.

But if you thought ahead and started looking for someone before the situation became desperate, there’s little doubt that Bob would be a smarter move. He has the tools to grow, and you have the environment for him to learn. And, if you give him a chance and treat him right, chances are he’ll not only grow into a terrific tech; he’ll also be grateful for you investment and will be with you for a long time.

So the first part of the solution — let’s take a page from Dennis and call it the “Escape from Gilligan’s Island” — is to change your concept of whom you’re looking for. But that leaves you with the chore of training this new technician.

Which takes us into the second part of the equation: What is ATRA doing to help?

The truth is, ATRA’s been providing assistance in training new technicians since it was first incorporated over 60 years ago. We have a whole series of books and training programs, covering the principles of Hydraulics and electricity. We have books on diagnostic strategy, including the latest computer systems and transmissions that haven’t even made their way to your bays yet.

And let’s not forget our wealth of articles in GEARS — and not just the ones in this month’s magazine. For years we’ve been delivering some of the most insightful technical training available anywhere in the world, and it’s all right at your fingertips on the ATRA Members web site.

Want your new hire to learn about basic computer diagnosis? We’ve covered it. Trying to help him understand the latest computer networks? It’s there. Need to provide a clearer picture of voltage drop test or how to use a digital oscilloscope to diagnose a circuit? Yeah, we’ve got that, too.

There’s a whole series of articles covering hydraulic principles, articles that explain gear ratios and rebuilding procedures, and articles that shows how to get the most out of a road test.

We’ve even provided a series of articles on measuring techniques using a micrometer or caliper, available as individual articles or as a standalone training program. Basically, if there’s something you need to know about working on today’s cars and light trucks, we probably covered it in detail, and it’s all right there for you to use to help train your new technicians.

Not that we’re sitting back on our laurels: There’s still a lot of work to do, and we’re ready for the challenge. In the coming months and years, expect to see more articles, training programs, seminars, and webinars targeted toward helping you “grow your own” technician.

And don’t forget ATRA’s certification program: Sure, it’s a terrific way to demonstrate to your customers that your technicians have the right stuff, but they’re also a great way of evaluating your technicians, to see where they’re doing well… and where they need more work. There’s no shame in failing the test if you use it to refocus your training.

So what is ATRA doing to help you find the technicians you need? First we’re going to help you reevaluate who you’re looking for. Then we’re going to help you provide your new hires with the training they need to step up and take you through the coming years… and beyond.

It’s a daunting task, but at ATRA, it’s what we do… and what we’ll continue to do in the years to come.