WOODCLIFF LAKE, N.J.—The scarcity of well-trained, entry-level technicians has prompted BMW of North America Inc. to launch a joint-venture training program with two vocational training schools. ``If we want to fix the car right the first time and keep customers happy, we have to have qualified entry-level people,'' explained John Patton, service manager for BMW of North America, which is based in Woodcliff Lake.
The BMW Service Technician Education Program, or STEP, is a first for a European automaker. American Honda, Chrysler Corp., Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. sponsor training programs with technical schools, according to the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). The Herndon, Va., group tests and certifies technicians.
``There is a bidding war going on (for technicians),'' said Mark Friedman, president of Personnel Survey and Research, a Princeton, N.J., automotive recruiting firm.
``Dealers are looking for shortcuts—people who can be plugged in like component parts to a service department and function perfectly from day one.''
BMW of North America offers its program through Lincoln Technical Institute in Mahwah, N.J., and Universal Technical Institute in Phoenix. Fewer than 5 percent of the graduates qualify for the BMW program.
The company only accepts applicants who graduate with a grade point average of 3.5 or higher and near-perfect attendance. Trainees are tested for drug use and must have good driving records.
They also face 720 hours (or about six months) of specialized BMW training.
That training takes place on the technical school campuses with BMW-trained instructors. The carmaker has outfitted the schools with BMW tools and a fleet of cars.
The first BMW training session ended Feb. 28, with 27 graduates. ``All of them found a dealer,'' said Mr. Patton, adding that there will be four more classes this year.
``A lot of the young technicians that come out of technical schools aren't trained to work on specific product lines. Many are trained on Ford and GM products—not the European lines,'' said Gary Long, service director of Leith Auto Center in Raleigh, N.C.
Mr. Long hired four of the first STEP graduates a month ago. Dealers pay $7,500 to BMW to hire a STEP-trained technician. Mr. Long also paid the new hires a signing bonus of $1,500 each toward relocation, and helped them find apartments.
The dealership picked up the first month's rent and a security deposit.
Typical pay for STEP graduates is $15 to $17 per hour, and signing bonuses of $4,000 are not unusual, said Mr. Patton.
Altogether, Mr. Long has hired about 10 apprentice techs over the past 10 years—many did not last a year.
Prior to the STEP program, the dealership spent $2,000 to $4,000 a week for training and orientation of inexperienced technicians. The expense includes down time for experienced technicians assigned to mentor the trainees, as well as the tuition and travel for off-site BMW training.
The STEP program, according to Mr. Long, ``probably speeds up the (technician's) progress by six months.''