In my last column, I described how an automotive competition called ``Focus on the Future'' is improving the automotive repair industry's image and workforce. The brainchild of some service shop owners in southern Illinois, the program shows the impact a handful of can-do people can make.
Paul Stock of Stock's Underhood Specialists in Belleville, Ill., is active in the local chapter of the Automotive Service Association (ASA) across the river from St. Louis. He led a small band of ASA members who created this equivalent of a science fair competition for auto repair students at local high schools.
The competition requires students to build a mock up of a sophisticated automotive system or subsystem, then write a comprehensive paper and give a verbal report on its theory, operation and diagnosis.
Readers know I've encouraged them to bring their expertise, insight and suggestions to bear at local automotive schools. Why involve yourself with a school? Because a solid automotive program is to your shop what farm clubs are to major-league baseball: A breeding ground for new talent.
According to Mr. Stock, some automotive teachers hear so little from shop owners they ``often feel isolated-just swinging in the breeze'' trying to make their school's programs meaningful to the industry. So they have welcomed Focus on the Future with open arms because it helps renew the vital dialogue between teachers and shop owners, he said.
Besides apprising teachers of what tradesmen seek in new hires, the competition has impressed upon students the need for smart, well-rounded technicians to fix tomorrow's vehicles. The message is more credible in that it comes from the same shop owners who do the hiring!
Mr. Stock admitted that some schools probably didn't participate because their students didn't want to research and write the required report or prepare for the verbal aspect of the program.
But emphasizing the ``complete'' technician must be paying off because the biggest surprise of this year's competition was the overall improvement in written and verbal reports. ``It was obvious to the judges that instructors spent much more time prepping the kids for writing and speaking,'' Mr. Stock said.
If programs such as Focus on the Future are what it takes to key both automotive teachers and students on communication skills, then similar competitions ought to be under way in every city! The time to inspire good work habits and communication skills is when people are young and impressionable. Once they enter a shop and begin absorbing other techs' lousy attitudes, it's infinitely more difficult to turn them around.
Earlier, I likened technician recruitment to a ball club's farm system. The analogy is important in another way. Exceptionally talented high-school players occasionally head directly into the major leagues. Likewise, some kids go straight from high school into an auto service shop.
However, most athletes and budding technicians benefit from the additional training and maturity they gain from a post-secondary school. But in the Illinois area east of St. Louis, many students weren't aware of a first-rate automotive program at Lewis and Clark Community College.
Focus on the Future bridged an important gap in the local farm-team system by introducing students and teachers from 11 area high schools to the Lewis and Clark curricula. What's more, the competition itself challenges and inspires kids to prepare themselves for an advanced automotive education and reminds them they needn't go far to get good college-level training.
Besides spotlighting career opportunities in the auto service industry-as well as where to pre-pare for the career-Focus on the Future can take credit for saving its first ``soul.'' One of last year's winning students told Mr. Stock that although he had the talent for it, his heart wasn't in auto repair. He said that after graduating, he'd look for work in another profession.
This year, Mr. Stock encountered this young man at an automotive college in Chicago while speaking there about technician recruitment. The fellow said Focus on the Future prompted him to re-evaluate his decision and to apply himself to auto repair after all.
A trophy donated by the Automobile Club of Missouri, engraved with the names of the winning students and their teachers, is displayed at their school for one year. Mr. Stock said he hopes schools begin displaying the Focus on the Future trophy as prominently as their sports awards. They should indeed!