TORONTO—It doesn't matter whether it's Canada or the U.S., all automotive repair and service businesses need and want more training for their employees. But the problems are the same: How to find the time and money to send employees off-site for sessions without impacting the business adversely.
Canadian Automotive Repair Service, a non-profit organization known as CARS, thinks it has the answer. It's called Interactive Distance Learning—that is, using one-way video and two-way audio to offer classroom training via satellite.
CARS was founded in 1988 by five Canadian automotive associations to address the human resource and training needs of the country's auto repair and service industry.
Initially, the organization offered traditional training, but found over the years it wasn't meeting the needs of the industry, said Christy Conte, project manager for CARS, in a seminar Jan. 28 during the Tire Dealers Association of Canada convention in Toronto.
"The training was too costly and the logistics were too difficult to manage in a country the size of Canada, with a spread-out population," she said.
So about a year ago, CARS abandoned much of its traditional on-site training in favor of TV-based learning, beaming programs into Canadian businesses via satellite, Ms. Conte said.
Four days a week, CARS offers training programs over its satellite network. For a fee, businesses can tap into the network right in their own shops via a satellite receiver.
CARS produces the programs in its own studios in Richmond Hill, Ontario, and offers them throughout Canada, said Ms. Conte, who also serves as an on-air instructor.
Current subscribers include Canadian Tire Corp., Sears Canada, Midas Muffler and other smaller businesses including jobbers, independent garages and tire dealerships.
CARS even has the capability of providing satellite training to businesses in the U.S., if the numbers warrant it, she added.
To make the lessons seem more like a real classroom, CARS provides students the ability to interact, real-time, with the presenters using a response unit that operates like a phone. They can see the instructor, although the instructor can't see them.
Every lesson comes with a learning guide that can be downloaded over the Internet. Online exams are provided for all the technical courses.
Using a numerical keypad on the unit, students also can answer teachers' questions, take quizzes and exams. "It's the closest thing to being there," Ms. Conte said.
Satellite training offers a number of benefits to participants, she explained: It cuts down on training costs by limiting the time employees have to spend away from work, reduces travel expenses and allows more people to be trained at one time.
This is particularly helpful in Canada with its large distances between cities, she said.
With Interactive Distance Learning, students receive qualified instruction and standardized programs. In addition, the system allows for tracking students' progress and attendance as well as certification.
CARS tailors its training programs to employees of automotive repair shops, tire dealerships, wholesale distributors, jobbers and fleets.
Classes cover a range of subjects including shop management, sales, the sales and service counter, finances, small business management, accounting, computers, tires and automotive service technician training.
Currently, the classes are offered four hours daily, Tuesday through Friday. Classes in French run from 8 to 10 a.m., while English versions are offered from noon to 2 p.m. CARS also is experimenting with evening classes from 5 to 7 p.m., Ms. Conte said, and will soon expand programming to eight hours a day.
Each class lasts about two hours and can be recorded. CARS publishes a broadcast schedule, including a brief description of the program, date, time and name of instructor every three months.
The organization offers two IDL plans, one with interactive capability, the other broadcast only.
The interactive version—which includes a satellite receiver, a personal computer with three response units and tech support—has a one-time startup cost of $5,000 (Canadian), plus a monthly charge of $190.
The broadcast-only version, consisting of a satellite receiving decoder, tech support and access to a toll-free phone line to pose questions to instructors, costs $230 a month. Users of this option are responsible for supplying their own TV, VCR, printer and Internet service, Ms. Conte said.
"People are fascinated when they see the live broadcast," Ms. Conte said. "We're even getting small independents to join. They see this as an opportunity."