Independent garage owner Dave Peacock gives his personal experience of the benefits and pitfalls of training and how it’s being frustrated by lack of access to technical information.
Training. The mere mention of this word among most small garages sends shivers down the spine. For garages of, say, six or more people, the absence of one individual is not going to have the same impact as for the smaller concern. Releasing an employee for a week is bad enough on the bottom line, but to release one for a day a week over a year or longer takes that line down a few more notches.
Then, once the training course is over, the employee is more marketable - and with his new marketability he may decide to leave. To survive, though, garages must use trained staff, but this in itself will not guarantee technical competence. New technology is appearing all the time and keeping abreast calls for ongoing training. So, given that up-to-date trained staff are essential to a successful business, not an option, how to best go about achieving this?
It depends to a degree on the size of the garage – for a small garage to employ only fully trained people is a better option, while larger garages can more easily withstand the impact of staff absences and trained up staff quitting.
The next question is what sort of training? This depends on the service(s) provided. For the fast fits, a basic course encompassing mechanical theory and practice will suffice, while for the engine management specialist a course embracing mechanics, electrics, electronics, and computer controlled systems is needed. Some training providers are geared up to meeting the mechanical theory and practical needs of the business - and to some extent engine management - but I believe that the full requirements of knowledge on the electronics side are best provided for by a separate technical college course. My reason for this opinion is based on experience of interviewing several ‘qualified’ garage people who had trouble with applying ohms’ law to a simple question at interview time.
As any teacher will tell you, they only feel confident about their subject when they have successfully studied it a few levels above the level they are teaching at. Just because you have passed a GCSE does not make you competent to teach it, and the same applies to practising your technical knowledge.
If you are in the engine management field, even if it forms only part of the business, you should have a member of staff who knows more than necessary about electronics rather than just enough. The advantage of having a clever clogs on the payroll becomes all too apparent with the arrival of yet another piece of electronic wizardry. While less informed employees need to go off on a training course, all that clever clogs requires are the application principles and a wiring diagram.
I give the following account of my garage’s quest for trained staff purely as an indication of the sort of problems that can be encountered. When looking for my first employee I wanted someone who was primarily good with electronics, reasoning that if he was clever enough on that side, he would soon get to grips with the mechanical aspect. Regrettably, the lad I hired turned out to be a ‘know all’ in the troublesome sense and we parted company.
I then employed someone older, very experienced on the mechanical side but with no electronic-type qualifications. He’s still with me and it’s proved to be a brilliant partnership. Where I would sometimes stumble over the cause of a fault he would nail it with something I had overlooked.
Employing another electronics whiz kid who was also mechanically talented looked promising until he went off (with my wife, as it happened). Then I took on a 19-year-old and sent him on a couple of courses, only to have him leave 12 months later.
After 18 months of surviving short of staff, I was relieved when the lad returned, chastened by his experience of working somewhere else but bubbling with the enthusiasm and fresh outlook upon business that only youth can provide.
Since then, we have never needed to send anyone on refresher training courses because we have enough basic electronic and mechanical knowledge between us to sort out nearly everything that comes in through the door. I say nearly everything because what lets the garage industry down at present is not training but access to technical information.
All the training in the world is of no use when you can’t get the wiring diagram you need, along with location of components, the precise fault code explanation, operating principles, etc.
In some respects, our life is more challenging than a doctor’s. At least the doctor knows where all the bits are and what they do – a patient doesn’t come into the surgery with his heart in a different place, performing a new function.
As a for instance, we have always had information problems with the Ford 1.8 Endura diesel engine. It’s a common system, but no-one we knew could supply anything beyond a basic wiring diagram. Only in the last few weeks have we received detailed information, in this case from Mototek.
This state of affairs is by no means limited to Ford. So the crux of the problem in my view lies not with training per se, but the availability of information.