Making It Work - January/February - 2016

Creating a New Position

During the recent Powertrain Expo, we discussed the idea of reaching out to the next generation of technicians and finding a way to bring them into the transmission industry.

One problem we’ve heard over and over is that you can’t find technicians ready to be productive in the shop right from a trade school or automotive program. They know a little bit about a few systems, but they just don’t “have what we’re looking for.”

Which leads to the question: Are we setting our expectations too high?

Consider other fields; say plumbing or electrical work. A young person takes a two-year program in one of these fields and learns that water runs downhill and that you shouldn’t touch the white and black wires together. They know how not to break things and that might be about it. The rest of their training comes on the job, working as an apprentice.

For some reason in our industry we don’t see it that way: We want someone to be productive right out of school. The reality is that much of the real training an individual will receive will be in your shop.

So the question is, how do we train these individuals? And how do we safeguard ourselves from going through several years of training, only to have them quit and go elsewhere?

So let’s consider a new business model — one that turns those new hires into profit-generating employees almost immediately… while they’re still learning the business!

Before we delve into training, let’s first take a look at the positions available for these new hires. Most shops have these three basic technical positions:

  1. R&R or Chassis Tech
  2. Swing (R&R and some rebuilding)
  3. Rebuilder

Some shops also have a fourth position: a diagnostician.

Each of these positions requires years of on-the-job experience to become proficient. There isn’t a school out there that can provide you with a candidate who’ll walk into your shop and step right into those shoes. It’s just not possible to offer that level of education in the time they have in school. Not to mention that many of the transmissions used in automotive classes are maybe 20 years old; they’re just not relevant to today’s market.

Another issue is that the standard model seeks to establish who has the capacity to become a rebuilder and train them for that role. It’s a constant search for that top position.

But what if we created new positions with a different objective? Perhaps we can learn something from the remanufacturing field. Remanufacturers, including some transmission remanufacturers, don’t always have employees who can take the job from beginning to end. Instead the job is broken into segments: teardown, inspection, cleaning, individual component assembly, valve body repair, and, finally, the overall assembly of
all of the subcomponents that other people have rebuilt or repaired.

I’ve personally watched a team of individuals who knew nothing about transmission operation remanufacture transmissions. I can tell you first hand, it’s a workable — and profitable — business model.

With that in mind, let’s consider how we can use a similar approach in your shop with these objectives in mind:

  1. Train your new help
  2. Get more from your existing, experienced help
  3. Operate your business profitably

That third goal has always been a problem when it came to bringing in new people, because they generally require a large investment in training before they begin to carry their weight. Then there’s the problem of them leaving once you’ve spent all that time training them.

So let’s consider a new business model — one that turns those new hires into profit-generating employees almost immediately… while they’re still learning the business! There’s no large, front-end training necessary before they start carrying their weight.

Let’s also imagine that you could put your top technicians into more supervisory positions and let them focus on the more complex areas that require their skills and experience.

We’ll keep the R&R tech role the same, although we could modify that as well. For production, we’ll create two new positions:

  1. Control tech
  2. Assembly tech

The assembly tech is the entry-level position. It’s for the kids fresh out of an automotive class. What they’ve learned in class doesn’t have much relevance to today’s transmissions, but they do have some worthwhile skills. They can assemble a clutch drum, prepare a case, or handle any number of component repairs, similar to the remanufacturing model. Seriously, how much different is it to rebuild a C6 direct clutch drum as opposed to a 3-5-reverse drum from a 6R80?

The point is there’s meaningful work these individuals can do right away! The components you choose are up to you. You can even have them build subassemblies for your more popular transmissions and put them in stock for later use.

The control tech position isn’t all that much different than today’s rebuilder position. But in this case, in exchange for training your assembly tech, the rebuilder gets some relief from the more mundane aspects of the job. Let’s face it, some of the work in rebuilding an automatic transmission is boring!

If the training goes well, the control tech will wind up with a clean and prepped case, rebuilt clutch drum assemblies, and maybe even a rebuilt pump or valve body. Perhaps there are two assembly techs, each focusing on specific components. The control tech position now becomes more prestigious and fulfilling.

Another advantage to this model is that the assembly tech position is easier to fill should they leave to go elsewhere. Let’s face it, if you have someone in a “swing” position or you’re training them to become a rebuilder, at some point they’ll want that rebuilding position. If you don’t have a position for another full-time rebuilder, they’ll find it elsewhere.

This is merely an idea for a different business model. Trimming around the edges or trying to make your current model work better may not be a good solution to the problem of finding and training good technical help. Sometimes it’s better to throw out the entire system and start over with a fresh plan.

You could do something similar with the chassis tech position and develop a position such as “prep tech,” where the job is to get the car on the lift, drain the oil, and disconnect certain components, giving your chassis tech a clear path to yank the transmission out in minutes.

Just like rethinking your sales and management strategies over the past 10 years, maybe it’s time to rethink the production side of your business. You can do it, and there are plenty of young people waiting to be part of your new business plan. What are you waiting for?