Technician Training

The automotive service industry faces a harsh reality

by Jacques Gordon

Earlier this week I watched a webinar hosted by Pete Meier, Technical Editor of Motor Age magazine. The panelists were all well-known and respected in the industry, and the discussion was relevant and well worth watching. If you missed it, look here:

The discussion topic was “The Next Generation,” and Pete opened by asking the panel about the growing shortage of qualified technicians. Part of the conversation focused on training for new technicians, and someone noted the fact that technicians are trained very differently in Europe, more specifically, Germany. That’s something we’ve known for a long time, but how many of us really know how the Germans do it?

The word “technician” in Germany defines a profession, and professional technicians are employed in 348 different occupations. Professional technicians train in the Dual Vocational Training System, a national apprenticeship program that lasts about three years. It includes classroom lessons in business theory, academics and communications, along with the technical skills specific to a given occupation. Much of the Dual Vocational Training System was written into law in 1969, but formal structured apprenticeship programs have existed in Germany for centuries and have consistently produced highly-skilled workers.

High school graduates seeking an apprenticeship must pass an entrance exam. About 80% of the price of an apprentice’s training is covered by the company that offers them a contract, mostly small- to medium-size companies, and local government covers the rest. Apprentices receive partial pay during training, and those who complete the program (about 25% drop out) are ready to work the day they graduate. From there they can look forward to steady, lucrative and potentially life-long employment. Companies are willing to pay for training because they get highly-skilled labor with a good work ethic and a sense of company loyalty. Government investment is justified because it maintains a national labor force ready to compete on the world market. Some parts of the training are the same for each occupation, so the work force is trained to a national standard that really fits German industry’s needs.

Vocational training is popular in Germany; about 60% of all male and female high school graduates apply for it. In 2011, there were 1.6 million apprentices training in about 600 thousand companies under roughly 1 million certified trainers.

The American-style technician training couldn’t be more different. Whether they’re in private or state-supported post-secondary school, auto tech students pay for their training and invest at least that much again in tools. For most, there is little guarantee of employment upon graduation, and while they gain a fair understanding of automotive technology, there is no national standard of capability, so prospective employers don’t know what to expect from them. Few are actually productive the day they finally go to work, and few will earn the salary that recruiters often dangle in front of them. They’ll go to work in an industry that requires them to seek additional training on their own time and expense, and they’ll probably work at several different shops before finally (if ever) finding a permanent home.

As I watched the webinar panel discuss these and other reasons for the growing shortage of quality technicians in our industry, I thought of a famous scene from the comic strip Pogo created by Walt Kelly so many years ago: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”


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When having your mobile A/C system professionally serviced, insist on proper repair procedures and quality replacement parts. Insist on recovery and recycling so that refrigerant can be reused and not released into the atmosphere.

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One Response to Technician Training

  1. Interesting take on things, but all I have to offer is my personal experience.

    My best students are the ones who did backyard shadetree work before they ever came – they might be right out of high school or in their mid twenties. Their background in building engines and making engines run on a wing and a prayer make great foundational material.

    My next best group would be ex-military – I have three of them right now, one Vietnam veteran (he’s older than me) and two ex-Marines fairly recently back from Afghanistan. The military guys are focused and serious.

    I have dual enrollment students, most of whom are just there to get away from the high school, but some of them work out okay and become full time college students.

    The full time college students who come right out of high school and don’t have foundational knowledge are the most challenging, because motivation is in short supply these days among high school “graduates” if you can call them that – most of them can’t even do simple math – because they’ve never had to! Their spelling is atrocious as well, but they read okay and they have good computer skills.

    When I talk to prospective high school students, either at a job fair or in a group setting, only about 3 out of 100 on the average is even interested in automotive, and if I can get just one of them to enroll as a full time college student I’m extremely fortunate. Of the ones who enroll, about half will wash out because the work is harder than they expected. The ones who go the distance typically begin a co-op job at a shop during their last term and they usually stay where I put them.

    Some don’t complete the program (they flunk academics or they have to quit school to go to work for money problems) but still manage to get work in the automotive field as alternate completers.

    My program is NATEF Certified – we just re-upped on that last month with flying colors – and it costs about $10,000 for in state tuition and the tools.

    One of my more recent grads started out at NADC – one semester cost him $14,000 and he quit that program to come to mine – said he wasn’t learning anything up there. Today he works at a local GM dealer and is doing a great job – he’s one of those guys that builds and drives “drift” cars on the weekend… had a good foundation.

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