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Overcoming Generational Differences in the Shop

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Let’s go back in time to 1976. Just a few years out of high school, I was lucky enough to land a position as a mechanic at Randy’s Chevron in the Bronx. One of my first jobs was to replace lower ball joints on a ’68 Chevy Nova. As I’m hitting the ball joint separator tool as hard as I can, Randy is across the shop on the phone. After ten or twelve tries with the hammer, I hear Randy say, “Hold on a minute.” He threw the phone down onto the workbench, ran over to me, yanked the hammer out of my hand, told me to step aside and with one hit, he separated the ball joint. He handed the hammer back to me and said, “Next time, hit the damn thing, don’t tickle it.” He walked back to phone, and continued his conversation. 

I was stunned. I remember feeling awful that night as I drove home. Not for what Randy said, but that I somehow disappointed him. The next day, I walked up to Randy and apologized. He asked, “For what? I forgot about it already.” 

What’s your opinion on Randy’s style of management? Agree or disagree? To answer that depends on your perspective, or should I say, generation. If you are of my generation, the Baby Boomers, you can relate to how I felt. Those of you who are younger, especially from Generation Y who are under 35, are probably thinking, “What a jerk.”  

There were many bosses like Randy. For my generation, these were our mentors. Randy, like so many of his era, endured many hardships throughout his life. His experiences carved his view on life. When I became a shop owner, I naturally adopted that same style of management: “My way or the highway.” 

I know now that this style of management no longer works. With three generations now working side by side at my shop, each having a different view on life and work, it can be challenging at times. The key thing is finding a way to work as a team.  

Last month, at the start of the school year, one of my younger techs came to me and asked if he could come in late because he wanted to watch his son get on the school bus for the first time. I never had that request before. I said yes, but felt uneasy about it. This got a lot of raised eyebrows from the older guys. My foreman, a Baby Boomer, commented, “Is he out of his mind?”  Thinkstock

Generation Y grew up with cell phones, social media and text messaging. They live in a socially connected world and value their free time. While Baby Boomers adhere to a more structured work schedule, I find that the Generation Y prefers a more flexible approach.   

Another thing I noticed with the younger generation is their desire for constant feedback. The other day, one of my service advisors came to my office before the start of the day, sat down and started a conversation. At 28 years old, he feels quite at ease coming to me with questions, asking me how he’s doing, and giving me tips on how to run things. Now contrast this with my 50-year-old tech—he rarely says more than a few words to me all day.   

I guess it’s natural to question some of the character traits of the younger generation. But, this is our workplace, and we all need to accept and understand that there are generational differences. We may not agree, but the truth is that no generation is right or wrong; we’re just different. And, if we all get to the same place at the day’s end, then that’s all that matters. 

The real issue however is not, “can we get along,” but “how.”  

We are in a crisis when it comes to our future. We need to attract and retain talented young people. As a nation, we have spent decades telling young people that a good job requires a college degree, where after graduation you become a professional sitting behind a desk wearing a suit and tie. To make matters worse, we have been battling an image problem that thankfully is finally improving. But, we need to do more. 

The older generations have an obligation to the younger generations. We need to be more accepting and become the mentors that the younger generation looks up to and learns from. We need to be proactive and get the word out to trade schools, high schools and to the community that a career in the automotive business is just as honorable as any college degree. And for those shop owners who still need a shop makeover, do so. Image does matter.  

Generations will come and go. It’s the evolution of life. Each generation defines its legacy. My hope is that all of the generations today will be known not for their differences, but for being the generations that worked together to make a better tomorrow. 


Joe Marconi has more than three decades of experience in the automotive repair industry. He is the owner of Osceola Garage in Baldwin Place, N.Y., a business development coach for Elite Worldwide and co-founder of autoshopowner.com. Reach him at jmarconi@ratchetandwrench.com.

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