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James Rodriguez
James Rodriguez

SHOP STATS: Simard Automotive   Location: Two locations in Fairbanks, Alaska  Operator: Mike Simard  Average Monthly Car Count: 450 Staff Size: 15  Shop Size: 5,200 square feet  Annual Revenue: $2.9 million 

*Information is for both locations   

In 2015, 23-year-old James Rodriguez packed his bags and moved from his home in sunny Florida to the frigid cold of Fairbanks, Alaska. What was the cause for the drastic change? Rodriguez was ready to begin the pursuit of his dream of a career in the automotive industry.

Since he can remember, Rodriguez has always had a passion for cars. Growing up, his family always said that he was destined to work with cars. In 2015, Rodriguez was managing valet operations for a hotel in downtown Tampa without any real idea of what he wanted to do with his future. While he was there, he met a friend from Alaska who told him about Mike Simard, owner of Simard Automotive, and his apprenticeship program. The program sounded perfect for Rodriguez, who was eager to get in the industry but unsure of how to do it. Rodriguez decided to roll the dice and bought a one-way plane ticket.

What originally was supposed to be a summer of learning has turned into a full-time apprenticeship for Rodriguez at Simard Automotive. Simard created a four-year apprenticeship program that requires 8,000 hours of guided instruction and online learning. Rodriguez, who started out never having picked up a wrench in his life, has moved up the ranks from shop helper to performing oil changes to more difficult tasks, like chassis work. With each new opportunity, Rodriguez moves one step closer toward his ultimate goal of moving back to Florida and opening his own shop.

 

When I first got there, the apprenticeship spot wasn’t open, so Mike offered me a position as a shop helper. I was a little put-off at first, but I realized it was an opportunity to learn. I pushed a broom around for a while, but once I proved I was invested in the opportunity, I was moved into the apprenticeship spot.

When I started, I didn’t have any experience in a shop environment. I had a bunch of master technicians that were trying to coach me and were getting frustrated. I didn’t know little things, like which drain to pour the oil down. Trying to figure out things quickly was the biggest challenge.

When I’m working in the shop, there are guys that know exactly what to do on every car and it’s hard to get them to explain all of the details. To help out with what I don’t know, I’m taking courses through Cars on Demand. The courses are a requirement of the apprenticeship. I usually spend about three hours per night doing this.

I wake up at 6 a.m. and I’m in the shop by 7. When I get in, I check with the service advisor and the foreman to see what kind of work I’ll be doing for the day. I handle most of the alignments in the shop. We have two locations, and the other location doesn’t have an alignment machine, so all of that work is sent here. I usually see two alignments per day.

Right now, based on where I’m at in the apprenticeship, my day consists of a lot of oil changes, brake and chassis work. I pulled my first transmission this year. I’m starting to work with and become familiar with scan tools, so I can look at a lot of things and diagnose now.

Being a new tech, all of my work has to be checked by the shop foreman. He pushes me to double-check my own work. Through this program, there’s a good amount of observation.

I’ve come a long way and I have more confidence to do things by myself. I still have a lot of questions with which I go to the foreman. I’m always observing how the rest of the staff works and ask them questions about their thought processes. I can watch a repair and make a mental note, “OK, this is where my hand needs to be at to get the proper torque.”

My day varies depending on the type of work that I get. There are some days when we don’t have another shop helper so on those days, I fill in and try and help everyone out. I want to make sure that everyone gets helped—especially the customer.  

One of the things that I really want to pursue is having a formal education. I feel like there are still gaps in what I’m learning. Right now, I’m looking to sign up for the automotive program at the local college— UAF Community and Technical College—on top of what I’m already doing.

Mike is big on continuing education, so a couple of days out of the month, we do training at local NAPA stores or dealerships. I’ve been able to take those books home and read them and because of that, I understand how certain systems work more than I did before. Now, I can piece them together and come up with creative solutions.

Because the program is run by the government, I have a monthly meeting with the shop foreman and every three months, the two of us get together with Mike and we go over my hours, my training and recently, they’ve started to quiz me.  

If I’m lucky, I leave around 6:30 p.m. I make sure my bay is cleaned and that all of the tools are accounted for and put away properly. I make sure that my time card is squared away and then I head home. Once I get home, I try and play with my dog for a little bit, then I make dinner, watch training videos and take my test for the day.

The biggest obstacle for me being here is not having a support network, but I know that this is what I need to be doing to support myself and accomplish all of my goals.

Moving forward, I want to move away from oil changes and do more actual car work. I’d like to be able to do more of that difficult work with confidence. November 2019 will be my four-year mark. Once I’m finished with the program, I’d like to stay here a little longer. I need more experience. My goal is to have finished the apprenticeship, get my ASE master certification, a degree from the automotive program and a couple years of experience before I move back and pursue my dream of opening my own shop. I want everyone to say that I put in the work and I studied my ass off.

I’ve seen a lot of people who say that they want to be in the industry but then don’t actually live it. The biggest thing that I’ve learned is to be present—literally lurk over people’s shoulders. They’ll think you’re a pain, but that’s how you do it. Ask what they’re looking for. Pick up on those little things—they amount to so much. Being here and doing it has been everything for me to get a jumpstart on what I want in life.

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