For over a decade, one of the most glaring concerns for our industry has been how we’re going to fill the technician shortage. With the median age of automotive techs reaching north of age 40, we not only need more techs to fill the spots created by industry growth and normal attrition, but we also need to plan for what is sure to be an even bigger void created by retiring techs.
Many shops have widened the field of eligible candidates by no longer requiring skills and experience, but instead emphasizing attitude and aptitude. They recognize that a person with a good attitude will typically possess a strong work ethic coupled with a desire to learn and the ability to get along in a team environment. A close second is that the candidate has a mechanical aptitude – a knack for understanding mechanical concepts and dexterity with tools. Skills and experience are third, because skills can be taught to individuals with the first two attributes, whether in tech school settings or on the job training under a mentor, and experience is the natural result of time on the job.
In a recent conversation with ATRA’s SoCal Chapter President and owner of DMC Transmissions in Ventura, California, Donny Caccamise confirmed that attitude and aptitude trump skills. He said, “About three years ago, an instructor at Ventura College referred one of his students to me. He told me that he had a great attitude and loved working on cars. What a find he’s been for our shop! In his short time with us, he’s progressed from doing shop cleanup and basic fluid changes to our lead diagnostician and is already swinging on some types of units.”
However, most independent shops don’t have the luxury to take time from their master techs for mentoring. So, even when they hire an apprentice tech with good intentions to train them, many of the new hires grow weary of being assigned only low-level tasks. They end up becoming bored. And if they get jobs that are too difficult for their limited skills, they become frustrated and eventually lose interest. The key to sustaining interest and growth is to provide them with job tasks that are both challenging and within or slightly stretching their capabilities. Unfortunately, that’s not always practical in a small shop environment.
That’s where ATRA’s VTS (Virtual Training Solutions) program comes in. ATRA’s Technical Director, Lance Wiggins, says, “VTS is a versatile technical tool. Schools love it as a teaching aid, and shops use it for both training and as a resource for problems and fixes.” Let’s look at the different ways shops and schools are using VTS and how they feel about this new online educational program.
VTS IN TECH SCHOOLS AND COLLEGES
VTS is one way that ATRA is bridging the gap from the classroom to your shops. In his From the Tech Director message on page 2, Lance Wiggins offers some thoughts on this topic. He states, “We’ve been looking for strategies for creating a pool of new technicians coming into the transmission industry. We’ve signed up over 27 colleges and have 295 students using the VTS system. These students are going through the basic courses as well as the standard and advanced courses. With the successful completion of each course module, the student gets a certificate of completion.”
Imagine having a recently graduated tech school student coming to your shop looking for work. He or she hands you their resume, and it includes an extensive list of ATRA Course Completion Certificates covering a wide range of specialized training modules. As Donny Caccamise mentioned above, he looks first for attitude and aptitude, but these candidates also have some knowledge and skills. Sure, they’re still raw, but by continuing to learn with additional VTS modules and progressing with skills development on the job, they could become your next superstar.
But there’s a lot of competition for these students – especially the good ones. Manufacturers and dealerships sponsor many schools and students. The student works at the factory dealership as an intern while also attending school to get a degree in automotive.
With VTS, ATRA can now do the same. Local ATRA Chapters have already taken advantage of this. For instance, our SoCal Chapter recently sponsored a college near Los Angeles, granting thirteen students access to ATRA’s website and, more specifically, to VTS as a learning platform. After they graduate, they’ll possess a graduation certificate from the college, and they’ll be ATRA Certified.
Moreover, imagine you freely seeking these tech candidates by having access to local schools with the blessing of the instructors. In preparation for writing this article, I interviewed several auto tech instructors across the country. Here are some of their comments.
Tony Schafers of Southeast Community College in Nebraska had a glowing review of the VTS program. Tony conducts the auto tech classes on the Milford campus, and his boss and the Automotive Program Director, Barry Smith, teaches at the Lincoln campus. Tony stated, “VTS has allowed our students to graduate on time even though our campus was shut down for COVID-19. We used VTS to meet their lab hours required for graduation. Lance was great, making personal calls to help students. We highly recommend these courses. We will include VTS courses in our standard curriculum going forward.” Tony added, “I’ve personally taken the courses, but I think in addition to the tests, I’ll require the students to submit written outlines of the course to assure a greater mastery of the material.”
Dennis O’Reilly is the instructor at Salt Lake Community College, where they require eight weeks of transmission classes for graduation. VTS also allowed SLCC’s second-year students to graduate on time despite the shutdown. Dennis told me, “We applied course hours to fulfill the practical lab hours with each module hour counting toward the standard minimum requirement. We assigned the chassis and diagnostics modules, and we allowed the students to choose their other modules from the menu. We’re going to incorporate VTS into our standard curriculum because VTS covers material for the newest stuff that isn’t even published in the textbooks yet.” Dennis told me that VTS might influence some students to consider a career path in transmissions because it’s not just in a book, and it brings it to life. He had nothing but praise for VTS.
Brian Kanable and Andy Olson jointly teach at Western Technical College in La Crosse, Wisconsin. They work closely with ATRA directly and through the Midwest Chapter President, Brad Benrud. Brad graduated from WTC and is also President of the WTC Advisory Board. According to Brian, “Brad has been known to recruit from WTC’s best students. While VTS could be a factor in a student considering a transmission-related career, we feel it’s a matter of exposure beyond what students get in the standard curriculum. Maybe having a transmission credential will encourage a student to lean toward transmissions, but more direct contact like what the new car manufacturers offer would help. There’s not a lot of resources or shops to support the transmission industry path.” Brian and Andy agreed, “We see the potential for integrating certain VTS modules into our curriculum by adding modules based on content that’s not well covered by our 2-year programs – 4X4 Systems, Reprogramming, and General Diagnosis.” Brian added, “The VTS delivery platform is solid with no technical or login issues – it looks and feels modern and is easy to navigate.”
Perhaps the most succinct comment was offered by Professor Kevin Taylor at Cerritos College in Alhambra, California, “In a nutshell, ATRA’s VTS is amazing. It is, in my opinion, the best online, real-world transmission training available.”
HOW SHOPS USE VTS
As mentioned above, shops tend to use VTS as a training tool and a technical resource. As Lance puts it, “Schools use it for teaching and shops use it to fix cars and problems.”
Of course, one of the biggest problems a shop faces is how to keep its techs up to date with the latest tech information. With tech seminars held throughout the country on limited schedules, sometimes techs miss out. Their availability doesn’t match up with the seminar dates and locations, leaving the techs who miss the events in the dark. VTS solves that problem by offering the latest seminars online and the seminar manuals through the ATRA Bookstore.
Another issue is that the seminars cater to more experienced veteran transmission techs and rebuilders. This leaves a gap in training for the apprentices and mid-level techs, wanting to advance in their knowledge and skills. Because VTS offers training modules from basic to advanced, techs, who wish to advance their careers can steadily progress through the VTS modules while applying their skills in the real-world shop environment. And this can be done with less of a drain on the time generally required of a mentor.
While both the above uses are vital applications of the VTS platform, the most common use in the shops is as a technical resource for researching problems and fixes. It’s faster and far easier to comprehend than reading it in a book or manual. It’s like having a problem solver on your staff.
Picking up where I left off on my above conversation with Donny Caccamise, “VTS makes things possible that we hadn’t even considered until now. It’s opened the doors to recruiting techs by reaching into the schools. It’s broadened the pool of potential employees – we can consider hiring based on great attitudes and turning them into great techs. All our employees are encouraged to take VTS courses, and to varying degrees, they do – even our front office staff.”
Donny concluded our conversation by saying, “VTS crosses the barrier between reading service manuals and books versus actually seeing it. It makes things more practical and removes the fear factor when you’re taking on something new or unfamiliar. VTS puts the power to access vital tech help right in the palm of your hand.”
If you haven’t checked out ATRA’s VTS or haven’t looked at it lately, don’t let another day pass without doing so. We’re always adding and improving. The possibilities are limitless. Virtual Training Solutions powered by ATRA is the future of training, and it’s just a click away!