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Six Steps for Building a Learning Culture

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While Travis Sallee knew about the technician shortage in the auto repair industry, he had no idea it was this bad. It was five years ago, and Sallee, who had spent years away from the industry pursuing another career, took over his parents’ shop, Loren’s Auto Repair in Kalispell, Mont. In need of two technicians, he began interviewing.

“It was pretty ugly,” he says. “It was hard to find good, quality technicians. You’ve got to be able to find the ones that have the aptitude and ability to grow and learn.”

Not only was there a shortage of applicants, but there seemed to be few quality potential employees dedicated to ongoing education and training. And with fewer technicians available, Sallee knew he’d have to hire employees committed to developing within his shop.

What resulted is an all-encompassing approach toward establishing a learning culture and assuring that employees continually care about their education and long-term advancement within the shop.

Sallee’s method for forming a learning culture starts at the hiring process and extends throughout an employee’s progression at Loren’s, which has grown in sales each year since 2011. Not surprisingly, Sallee’s techniques share consistencies with two other shop owners who have experienced year-after-year growth: J.R. Luna (Concours Motors in Ventura, Calif.) and Bola Shonoiki (Honest Accurate Auto Service in Colorado Springs, Colo.).

Each owner spoke with Ratchet+Wrench and laid out their strategies for crafting a learning culture.

1. Set Expectations.
Sallee says current employees and new hires should understand training is not an option—it’s a requirement.

Employees at all three shops are expected to attend a certain amount of training each year (whether it’s mandatory quarterly training or yearly total hours) and keep up with certifications to receive pay increases. Sallee’s new employees need to achieve their ASE Master certification within two years, completing one test—A1 through A8—every quarter.

A training budget allows you to determine which events and seminars are affordable, and lets your technicians know how much training is available. Luna uses 3 percent of his budget for training, while Sallee does 1 percent. Shonoiki, on the other hand, puts it this way: “Anything within reason that these guys find that they want to do, we’ll pay for.”

During the interview process, all three owners lay out their training requirements and expectations, and then gauge how applicants respond to questions about education and self-advancement. Luna says he’s more inclined to hire technicians who attended technical college, as they’re primed for the classroom structure.

“All of my techs are either UTI (Universal Technical Institute) grads or have a degree in automotive technology,” he says. “They’ve already spent the time in the classroom. They’re used to getting a book and learning about something that way.”

Sallee’s employees fill out a skills profile, which asks them to identify their competency for various repairs and service writing requirements and where they need improvement. He says employees that understand their weak areas will want to attend training to fix them.

2. Create Incentives.
All three shop owners cite incentives as the top motivator for completing training.

Both Sallee and Shonoiki offer raises for achieving the ASE Master certification. As Sallee’s apprentice technicians complete each test for ASE Master, they receive a 50-cent pay increase.

“That was our main motivator,” Shonoiki adds about the Master ASE certification. “We were able to say, ‘If you want a raise, here’s your raise.’”

A trend across all three shops is all-expenses paid trips to various seminars and expos. From meals to airfare to lodging to parking, the shops pay for any and all costs accrued during the trip.

“Going to training, especially when it is far away, is a treat for them,” Luna says. “They get set up at a nice resort with a pool and free meals and treat themselves to a relaxing weekend. It motivates them to work hard during class and come back with some real ideas for change.

“When the guys are only traveling a few hours, I will even cover their wives and families to come with.”

Luna offers perks throughout the year for meeting production goals—from Lakers tickets to movie gift cards to spa treatments—which he says encourages his employees to complete the training necessary to meet goals. This past summer, the incentives worked so well that all four technicians achieved 100 percent efficiency and each received a $1,250 Visa gift card and $100 tool credit.

“It gears them to want to produce more,” he says. “They need to be on top of things, and it is just so much easier when you know what you’re doing.”

3. Preach Training Values.
For ongoing training to become part of the actual shop culture, leaders need to establish how it’s an integral part of the business’s success.

“With advancements in vehicle technology, this is becoming a very technical profession, and you have to be sophisticated enough to fix these cars,” Luna adds. “When you have a culture where everyone wants to do better and we all strive to be knowledgeable, it requires everyone to be their best.”

Make training and ongoing education a common discussion topic, and encourage employees to suggest ideas for classes. At weekly meetings, Shonoiki discusses upcoming training opportunities, and encourages employees to suggest operational changes based on what they learn at training events. All three owners believe in setting an example by attending regular management training themselves.

4. Track Skill Progression.
It’s important to track how each employee progresses throughout his or her training. With the skills profile, Sallee is not only able to determine where employees stand, but also what training is required to get them to the next level.

He splits his employees into three categories: apprentice, journeyman and master. Their progression through those categories depends on their abilities to perform various job duties—from basic repairs, such as tire rotations and flushes, to difficult diagnostic procedures for technicians, and all the various selling and customer service techniques for service writers.

“I’ll have the lead techs do an assessment on the apprentices,” Sallee says. “We’ll compare the two to find the gap between where the tech sees himself and where’s he’s actually at, and how we can get him trained in those areas.”

Higher salaries and less supervision encourages employees to move through the ranks, while also requiring them to keep up with their training.

5. Assign Leaders on the Floor.
Training should go beyond classes and seminars—make education an everyday occurrence in your shop by pairing proficient technicians and service writers with those who need improvement.

“We’ll have an apprentice inspect the car, then have the master technician come behind and do a [second] inspection,” Sallee says. “Right there you see where they’re missing stuff. They’ll see the obvious, but blow past stuff they need to address. Over time, they’ll get better at inspections.”

Sallee says to match up mentees with mentors that have similar working styles. If someone has a Type A personality, pair him or her with an employee focused on organization.

You can also assign a mentor to everyone. Luna’s shop foreman will walk the floor and offer advice, but require the technicians to meet him halfway.

“If you ask him for help without having done the research, he’s not going to just give you the answer,” Luna says. “He’s going to make you show what you’ve done and explain your thought process before he offers his input. That breeds an attentive mind. You’re going to do your best to research an answer and know what you’re talking about before you go ask for help.”

6. Provide a Training Library.
Sallee and Luna both provide an in-house library for employees. Each shop has shelves stacked with textbooks, training manuals and DVDs available to watch at work or home. “Guys will bring the books back from training events, and I always see them referring back to a book or page they took notes on,” Luna says.

A subscription to nline technician training program AVI OnDemand has also paid off for Sallee’s shop.

“It’s harder to get them to want to sit in front of a TV with a book,” he says. “This way, they can refer to something right there on their laptops in their bays.”

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