Do your service techs need 'finishing school'?


Transitioning from the choreographed training offered at most technical schools to the mixed job assignments of a service department is difficult for some tech school graduates. So say service managers from all over the country.

Service managers want to hire techs out of school who are ready to fix anything that comes through the door. But for most grads, what was learned in school compared to what they confront in the workplace is not unlike the difference between a kata performed in a dojo to competing in a mixed martial arts fight in the ring. In the kata, you practice a series of moves in the same order with an imaginary opponent. In a fight, you throw combinations of kicks, punches and blocks to counter a real opponent’s moves or take the offensive to achieve a knockout blow.

If you’ve hired entry-level techs out of school, you’ve most likely seen them fail in some assignments. In most cases it’s not that they didn’t learn how; it’s that when they were confronted with a new combination of tasks they either froze, did it wrong, or took three times the job rate to complete it. In essence, they got their butt kicked by the job assignment.

You might think it’s the responsibility of the schools to do a better job. But the challenge for technical schools is to educate individuals on everything from vehicle setup and PDI through routine maintenance, diagnostics, repair, rebuild and modification. Technical instructors cram information and experiences into a year or two of training in class periods as short as five hours per day. Most technical institutes create clinics on subjects such as drivetrain, chassis and electrical, along with brand-specific programs such as Harley-Davidson or Honda.

For the 20 percent of students who have the gift of strong mechanical aptitude this formal education accelerates their skills, and they become far more effective and efficient than had they received their training only from other techs in the store.

For the remaining 80 percent who attend technical schools, a significant amount of what they acquire is muscle memory. They aren’t ready when they graduate to think their way through difficult job assignments.

Because technical schools have to juggle perfect-world training with the logistics of managing dozens to hundreds of students per day, they create curriculum akin to a martial arts kata. Students enter clinics one at a time where they learn and practice movements like chassis repair and electrical design and diagnostics. Then they move on to the next clinic to learn something completely different such as engine tear-down and reassembly. What’s needed is a finishing school.

Matt Flintrop, director of service operations at House of Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee, coined the term “finishing school” for the six months of on-the-job training he provides grads he hires out of the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute.

Flintrop starts by hiring two to three graduates at a time to improve his odds of retention. (He finds grads do better when they have the peer support of fellow students.) Additionally:

• New hires are mentored by a master technician who has the knowledge and experience to assist in any capacity. The master technician has excellent work habits and is a stickler for detail — he models the behaviors Flintrop wants all techs to embody.
• Entry-level assignments during the first six months start with basic maintenance and repair, and increase in complexity to work that includes diagnostics and internal drivetrain work.
• All hires must continue their factory training and, with House of Harley-Davidson only minutes away from Harley-Davidson University (HDU), all techs must attend at least one instructor-led HDU class per year. The goal for all techs in the shop: achieve master-level technician status within their first five years.

Now, I realize not every service department can hire multiple graduates at a time and that they may not be able to create a formal mentorship program, either. In all situations though, it’s a good idea to at least get expectations in alignment.

As Bob Monroig, who is in charge of Lake Washington Technical College’s powersports technical programs in Kirkland, Wash., puts it, most service managers expect graduates to be able to perform any work assignment at an entry-level wage. What the service manager gets most of the time is a darn good components changer. Someone who can do what they’re told with a degree of direction.

With a little guidance and support, that individual can become a mechanic; someone who can perform routine jobs without constant supervision. Eventually, as the mechanic grows in experience and knowledge, he or she will become a top-notch, problem-solving technician, your knockout employee who can take on any job and do it right.

The advantage of a school trained hire is that the finishing school can take 6 to 12 months to make that transition, not years, as when hiring off the street. Here’s my recommendation: Create an internal finishing school for the wrench-twisters you hire. Assign basic jobs first with more complex assignments every month. Provide entry-level hires with a go-to person who can help them through the rough patches and will perform a final inspection on every job completed.

That will expedite the learning process and reduce the hiccups that can tick off customers.

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews June 2011 issue.