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Inside an Effective Apprenticeship Program

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In 2014, Terry Boetsma faced what many shop owners would consider to be a nightmare staffing dilemma.

Two of his managers left his shop, Westside Service in Zeeland, Mich., and Boetsma was faced with the problem of having to add and restructure his staff. Luckily, Boetsma was prepared; he had built up a robust internship program through the years, and found several potential staff members for his rebuild.

“That’s where this internship really came as a necessity. We had to develop people from within,” Boetsma says.

Boetsma has had dozens of students come through his internship program over the years, and views it as a way to fuel their personal growth, along with growth in his shop. The change in staff gave his interns, and past participants of his program, the opportunity to step up, and take a bigger role in the shop.

Ten years after implementing his program, Boetsma has 14 staff members, eight of which have been, at one point in time, or are members of his internship program. Part of the reason he’s achieved this loyalty, he says, is because he created a program that allows his apprentices to flourish while also benefiting his operations.


The Backstory:

Boetsma became a co-owner of Westside Service with his father in 1995, and when his father passed away in 2001, Boetsma became the sole owner.

Although he started a pseudo internship program in 2008, where younger staffers would start by pumping gas and fixing tires and work their way up, it wasn’t an official program.


The Problem:

When he saw staff turnover in his shop, Boetsma realized that, rather than trying to find technicians in the area, it would be best to grow his own to find replacements, both at the time of turnover and in the future.

“There just isn’t a lot of young people coming into the trade,” Boetsma says. “We’re losing 74,000 technicians per year. A lot of kids just aren’t given the opportunity.”

Boetsma was faced with the problem of restructuring and hiring staff with a lack of qualified candidates, so he decided to grow his own.


The Solution:

As he ramped up his internship program, Boetsma put an emphasis on coaching, monitoring progress and building potential future employees.

Many of the interns expressed interest in taking on bigger roles in the shop, and Boetsma had to start giving them more responsibilities around 2010, like working on oil changes and general inspections. Every year, Boetsma says his program has become more defined, and he wants his strong interns to stay as long as possible.

In growing his program, Boetsma wanted to create a system of learning, while also building a pipeline of future technicians for the industry. A big part of this process however, was having a selective hiring process.

When trying to hire interns for his program, Boetsma tries to find people looking for careers, not a job. He has three meetings with the candidates, where he tries to get to know them as a person, and where they want to go in the future. If they maybe have a troubled past but are willing to learn and take on a role in the industry, Boetsma says he will take a chance on them.

When they are hired, there’s a two-week orientation process, which Boetsma has fleshed out and improved upon over the years. Week one involves learning where the cleaning supplies are and how to use them, with a review meeting at the end of the week. As the students become more acquainted with the shop, week two involves things that need to be learned around the shop, like how to use the tire machine, and how to start a repair order.

Each intern gets a mentor who works with him or her, and reviews his or her core competencies. The mentor doesn’t have to be a master technician, but is preferably older, and must have at least three years of experience as a technician. Throughout the years, Boetsma understood that having a one-size-fits-all mentality with interns is not applicable, and offers flexibility with himself and his mentors when necessary.

“I believe that everybody has different gifts,” Boetsma says. “So you have to be able to adjust to those accordingly.”

Eventually, Boetsma continues to give them chances to step up as they prove themselves. Once they get past month one, they have a chance to move on to more difficult tasks, and if they are still struggling, Boetsma holds them back until they learn.

If they are serious about the role and want to continue learning, Boetsma says he works to find scholarship opportunities for his interns to further their education.


The Aftermath:

In 2014, seeing how well his first business was doing, Boetsma took a leap of faith and bought a second shop, a former transmission shop in Holland, Mich., which he was able to staff in large part due to his internship program.

Now, Boetsma has a very strong staff, with $2.25 million in revenue between his two shops, and a large part of that is due to his internship program.

One of the interns who started pumping gas and changing oil moved up the ranks to a service writer role, and is now the main manager of the older Zeeland shop. Five other staff members who were once interns now work at both shops, ranging from technicians to service writers, with two interns currently working.

With the second shop in Holland, Boetsma was able to essentially double his program, and offer even more opportunities to both current and former interns. One of his former interns is now a master tech at his Holland shop and mentors a new young apprentice.

Boetsma is considering the possibility of another expansion, and based on the past success of his programs, he says he feels great about his staff prospects going forward.


The Takeaway:

In 10 years of experience, Boetsma says that to build a program like this, focusing on details and character are the two most important attributes.

“When setting something like this up, my advice would be to be as detailed as possible,” Boetsma says. “Hire on character, and hire the people that you say yes to on character.”

Through the seeds sown by his internship program, Boetsma was able to draw from his pipeline and replace the service writer, and lead technician who left.

“In an internship program like this, you’re not hiring someone when you’re short on people,” Boetsma says. “You’ve always got one person more than what you need, to give them an opportunity. They’re your investment into the future.”

SHOP STATS: Westside Service  Location: Holland and Zeeland, Mich. Operator: Terry Boetsma  Average Monthly Car Count: 650 (both shops) Staff Size: 12 full time, two interns  Annual Revenue: $2.25 million

Expert Advice: Structuring an Apprenticeship Program

Mike Davidson has owned Parkway Automotive in Little Rock, Ark., since 1998, and is also a business coach and published author. In an effort to bridge the gap between the automotive repair industry and the education system, Davidson set up a non-profit organization, the American Skilled Labor Association, which works to build comprehensive educational apprenticeship programs.

Davidson shares his thoughts on apprenticeship programs.

We have to be talking about the need to attract better people than we’ve had in the past. We let someone else decide for us who should be in the industry (by that I mean counselors in high schools). We have to start fishing in a different pond because, with the technology as it is, we need to have smart people in our industry.

To find those talented people, you need something in placewhat I call "tracks" to run on. You need to have a plan that clearly shows the apprentice why they would want to come to you, and be under your program as opposed to being in a technical college, or another shop that doesn’t have a program. You need to set yourself apart from anyone else, and having an apprenticeship program that is clear with where it starts, what you learn, when it ends, and what you receive when it ends, is going to be heads above anything your competitor thought about having.

You also need to identify a mentor. You need a mentor with him or her every day for a defined period of time with clear checkpoints of completion, so that you know and I know that the learning is happening.

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