Automotive schools with a positive, professional image are more important to the industry's long-term health than most people realize. The reason is: Impressive facilities, a solid teaching staff and upbeat school atmosphere form the foundation for successful recruitment. And successful recruitment rejuvenates an industry in dire need of new talent. I've devoted many columns to reinforcing the need for a professional stance, not to mention examples of how tire dealers and service shop personnel around the country are upgrading their image. Reader response confirms that concentrating on people and shop improvements has been worthwhile.
But recent discussions with automotive instructors convinced me the schools' role in image-building has been underestimated or overlooked altogether. Plus, the need for owners and managers to get involved with and demand excellence from schools cannot be overemphasized.
``You only get one chance to make a good first impression,'' aptly sums up the challenge in recruiting young people. In most cases, students' and parents' first exposure to auto repair training is a high-school-level program.
Every service pro I know agrees that automotive programs continue to fight the age-old misconception that shop classes are a holding tank for unmotivated kids unfit for academic curricula.
What's more, many pros share my feeling that auto shop departments often fail miserably at making a positive first impression, reinforcing the impression that it is, indeed, still a dungeon for dimbulbs!
For openers, the shop or lab area looks foreboding and dungeon-like because it's dim, dirty and cluttered. Sure, there's a hasty, half-hearted cleanup in time for the annual open house, but it's not enough. The old rationalization that the work area's dirty because the work is dirty doesn't cut it today.
Examine a school with a solid reputation and an award-winning auto shop program, and you'll see it looks just like a stellar service shop inside and out. The work area is brightly illuminated so students can see what they're doing. Although the lowermost section of the walls may be painted a dark color, the upper part is glistening white. Banners and plaques adorn the walls. Rather than foreboding, the shop has a cheery, welcoming atmosphere.
Toolboxes, workbenches and equipment are arranged sensibly and neatly to maximize shop efficiency. Frequently used items are within easy reach on pegboards or tool racks. In one word, first-rate school shop bays say ``organized'' instead of ``confused.''
Part of the students' indoctrination into working smart is cleaning tools and putting them in the proper place when they complete a task. Besides keeping the shop clean, this reduces lost time and lost tools.
To reduce the risk of fire, slipping or tripping, students are conditioned to clean up spills and discard trash after each job.
Due to budgetary constraints, schools covet good used vehicles or components more than actual service shops do. But like an image-and space-conscious shop manager, instructors segregate this material in designated storage areas, often outside the building. And junk does not just pile up in the name of education.
There's also modern equipment on hand, and students work on late-model vehicles. Visitors don't leave wondering why the newest car present is 15 years old.
Finally, sharp-looking lab coats carrying the school logo distinguish teachers from students. Each student wears a standard-issue lab coat of contrasting color.
The result: Visitors-especially prospective students and their parents-aren't intimidated by a dungeon effect. Instead, they see a cheerful atmosphere and sense pride, purpose and optimism there.
It's ironic that there are highly image-conscious repair shop owners and managers who won't get involved on a school's advisory board or visit a school to offer constructive criticism.
Although these people under-stand the importance of impress-ing consumers at their businesses, they forget the same consumers may steer their teenagers away from a shabby-looking auto shop program at a local school. By not participating, they're ultimately discouraging future hires for their service departments!
The most useful step toward the health and growth of your service business may be visiting local schools, joining an advisory board and demanding an image at school at least equal to the one you've created at your own business.