I have carped long and loud that today's automotive service market demands a new breed of technician. For tire dealers who claim schools aren't producing techs suited to today's marketplace, a progressive automotive program in Philadelphia exemplifies how training can and should be done.
It's also a model of effective industry-education cooperation.
John Long, director of Montgomery County Community College's (MCCC) automotive department, sums up the program succinctly:
``The days of the grimy `dese, dem and dose' mechanic are long gone. Today's motorists are driving expensive, sophisticated vehicles so they expect a level of professionalism to match. We groom well-rounded technicians to meet those expectations.''
Mr. Long is a well-respected, street-smart veteran automotive educator with a keen eye for customer needs. The customers are service shops seeking employable new talent to fix cars.
The school's advisory board includes members from automotive manufacturers, successful car dealers, a major automotive parts/service retailer (Pep Boys) and a local tire dealership chain (Avellino's Tire Centers).
Whereas some advisory boards only meet twice a year, MCCC's is an active group that meets almost monthly. Plus, board members helped design the MCCC automotive curriculum, Mr. Long said.
An effective work-study plan, which also has evolved into a successful student-placement service, rounds out MCCC's program. Students receive theory the first seven weeks of each semester. Then they spend seven weeks at a ``sponsor's'' service department applying the theory they've learned.
For example, if the student has been studying suspension, steering and alignment, his sponsor keeps him busy with as much suspension and alignment work as possible. The practical experience both complements and reinforces classroom training, Mr. Long said.
The lack of an established apprenticeship system has always hampered technician development and recruitment. But the MCCC-sponsor shop collaboration is a modern apprenticeship program for post-secondary level auto repair students.
Like a traditional apprenticeship, sponsor shops assign a mentor-a lead technician, master technician or shop foreman-to every student trainee.
Besides paying competitive rates for apprentice techs, a typical sponsor also provides uniforms and pays benefits. Presently, most sponsors are car dealers who belong to a local trade group, the Automobile Dealers Association of Greater Philadelphia (ADA).
The three-year-old program has been so effective that in 90 percent of the cases, the sponsoring service shop hires the technician trainee full time, Mr. Long said.
Poor communication plagues the entire auto repair industry. Often, techs and service managers don't communicate effectively with each other-let alone with consumers. This causes confusion, mistrust and lost sales. But according to Mr. Long, MCCC's automotive curriculum ``emphasizes all communication skills more than any other program I am aware of.''
MCCC automotive students are required to take two English courses (including English composition), an introduction to speech and communications, and a technical writing course.
Not only have the instructors teaching these courses observed service shops in operation, they've also been counseled by ADA-member owners and managers on the kinds of communication skills they demand in today's technicians.
Because computers are an industry staple, MCCC automotive students learn to write their technical papers on a word processor. Whenever necessary, techs must be able to express themselves in writing accurately and clearly to audiences ranging from customers, managers and insurance claims adjusters, to vehicle makers' field service engineers.
Plus, students also take technical math, an electronics course, an introduction to small business management, and a western civilization course that emphasizes the history of automotive transportation and its relationship to society, Mr. Long said.
The management course teaches students concepts such as calculating the cost of doing business, meeting insurance obligations and understanding zoning and right-to-know laws. This way, they know what their bosses face running a healthy business. They also get a taste of the knowledge they need to become a competent service manager or to open their own service shop in the future.
``Students should see that they have opportunities to advance themselves if they think they can do more than turn wrenches,'' Mr. Long noted.