Talent Cultivators

Oct. 6, 2022

How two repair shops are combating the labor shortage by finding and training apprentices to work for them (or you!) 

While traveling through northern Uganda, Chris Knuth spotted a tourist vehicle broken down along the road. Stopping to help, he noticed the entire front wheel assembly had fallen off. But that wasn’t the strangest part. Upon further inspection, he could see that all the parts were still brand new. These guys need instruction on how to fix cars, he thought. A visit to the local repair shops provided confirmation. “It was just really primitive,” Knuth says. 

Perplexed by what he had witnessed, Knuth took it upon himself to reach out to Bosch Car Service, which offers vehicle service on the African continent. The conversation led Knuth to create a nonprofit in Uganda that would provide automotive training for technicians while teaching them how to run a business. It would also provide access to the Bosch Car Service network for additional resources.  

“I was kind of basing it off of a lot of the different programs I've been involved with here in the U.S.,” says Knuth.  

When COVID struck globally, Knuth returned to the U.S. and decided to revive the training program stateside. This new nonprofit, called APAC ATI, boasts the ability to train technicians in as few as 10 months to do most of the work required in auto repair shops--- brakes, suspension work, maintenance services, etc.---without sacrificing quality.  

“I created a training model that will work in any existing repair shop,” says Knuth. 

Bays Over Books 

As indicated by responses within the 2022 Ratchet+Wrench Industry Survey, the need for qualified technicians remains an unsurmountable obstacle for many shop owners. Knuth, an ASE-certified technician who owns the San Juan Capistrano, California-based Star Motors European Service, believes his nonprofit can train techs fast and supply the industry with the necessary help that’s missing. 

His shop, comprised of 12 bays, seven technicians, and averages $3 million a year in revenue, is the proving ground for his 10-month program. Once a student is enrolled, Knuth and his staff guide them through an immersive learning experience complete with different automotive training modules, quizzes to test their retention rate, and hands-on opportunities to measure aptitude. He's not necessarily looking for the most technically-sound trainees to enter the program, but those with the desire to work and a learner's spirit. 

"This is an emersion style of learning, so if a car comes in that has a check engine light, the instructor is going to walk us through the procedure: How do we handle check-ins? What do we do first? What do we do second? Then the instructor can help them test the circuit. It's hands-on in the shop," says Knuth.  

On the classroom side, Knuth teaches theory and application, and shop culture. The goal is to provide a stimulating variety of experiences for the apprentices that helps them gain necessary head knowledge they can in turn apply sometimes within the same day. For students who already possess a technical background, Knuth offers the opportunity to test out of modules, which means these students can enter the workforce in fewer than 10 months. The result is an amicable balance of classroom and shop time where apprentices have the same daily variety as working technicians.  

"The reason why our training model is successful is because it works inside of an existing repair shop, so the students will be working on cars that are coming into the shop and ... getting real-world experience," Knuth says.  

Meet the Recruits 

In 2020, Americans were imprisoned at a rate of 358 per 100,000 U.S. residents. While this is the lowest since 1992--COVID restrictions played a role in dwindling numbers--it presents a problem for the incarcerated and the workforce they seek to re-enter. A 10-year recidivism study conducted by Leonardo Antenangeli, Ph.D.; Matthew R. Durose; and U.S. Bureau of Justice Statisticians found that 66% of prisoners released across 24 states in 2008 were arrested within 3 years, and 82% were arrested within 10 years. Sixty-one percent of prisoners during that period were re-incarcerated for a parole or probation violation or given a new sentence. It's often cited that recidivism is linked to a formerly incarcerated persons' inability to access gainful employment. It's a cycle and trend Knuth believes his program can change. 

"The more research I started doing, the more I found that people that have a record have a really hard time getting good jobs. And so, I've also been building relationships within the Department of Corrections, with parole departments, and other community partners that work with the re-entry population. What I've found is there's a tremendous amount of excitement to be able to provide an opportunity for people that can make a living where they can buy a house, they can have a future, and they don't have to defer back to criminal activity," says Knuth.  

While Knuth and people in the criminal justice sector have met this idea with excitement, he says some shop owners get shell-shocked initially by the idea of hiring a technician with a criminal background. 

"It is such a new idea that at first, people don't know what to do, it takes them a second," says Knuth, who explains to them that not all incarcerated persons are violent criminals. "... and look, we don't have a bunch of people lined up to be technicians. So, I'm like, 'You want to solve a problem or not?'" 

Another segment of the population Knuth's program seeks to help employ are military veterans. In a blog post on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website called "Why Can’t Some Veterans Get Jobs?" contributor Vincent H. Clarke, whose brother is an Iraq Veteran, observed that "veterans continue to struggle to gain employment because of culture gaps between civilian society and their military pasts, as well as a lack of seamless integration ..." It's something Knuth has noticed and why he's been developing a network for student referrals for veterans. 

"A lot of times what happens is when you leave the military, you lose that structure, you lose that camaraderie, and a lot of our veterans just get stuck. And so, I want to find a way for them to transition into a program like this, where we teach them the skills and then put them into jobs in our industry. I realized early on that veterans are a great fit for our industry. A lot of them already have some skills that we can bridge into automotive quite easily," Knuth says. 

Similarly to helping the formerly incarcerated get trained, he’s reaching out to those who desire to overcome alcohol and substance abuse and lead changed lives. He believes these people need new opportunities in the right industry. 

“The other segment of the population we're working with is people that have been in recovery from alcoholism and substance abuse ... that have not a lot of opportunities and need something to focus on,” Knuth says.  

The Handoff and the Send Off 

Knuth officially launched the program in July. During the yearlong beta testing process, Knuth brought apprentices into Star Motors where he trained them and brought them onto the team. One of the young men he ran through the apprenticeship had little experience before starting the program last October. Today, he's flagging 35 hours a week, performing well with low workmanship issues, and has had no comebacks. It's this proof of concept that gives Knuth the confidence to share the program with other shop owners. 

The process goes like this: Knuth has a phone call with the shop owner. The two discuss the goals of the shop. Knuth learns about the shop's processes. "We have to screen the shops as much as we have to screen the students," Knuth says. The next phase focuses on the student. He has to make sure the student wants the career, and he chooses a mentor for them. There is also no financial burden for the shop and APAC ATI supplies the training and equipment. Once all parties view the curriculum, the shop owner and Knuth agree to a memorandum of understanding. 

"It's just like any other contract, you know? We got to make sure that it's beneficial for both, and then we begin implementing the program into their shop, which really can be done in a couple of weeks," Knuth says.  

For shop owners interested in getting trained techs from the program, they have the option of hiring through the program or sending trainers from their shop to learn the program. In the case of the latter, shop owners would send their foreman or trainer to California, where Knuth put them up in a hotel for a week. They'll go through the curriculum to see the program in action, and then go back to their shops to implement it. Knuth says the waitlist of shops that want to become training centers is upwards of 15. Seeing this sort of response is what drives him. He's not only training qualified technicians to serve shops and thus help the public, but he's helping people get back on their feet. It's a win-win-win. 

"I want to build a steady pipeline of students coming to our industry. We're going to immerse them and integrate them to all aspects of the business ... Our graduates are going to hit shops, and shop owners are not going to know what the heck to do with them. They're going to be blown away,” Knuth says.  

Growing Techs from the Inside Out 

When a technician applies to work at Denny's Auto in Riverton, Utah, they're told plainly that it's grow or go. 

"One of our things when we interview new people and bring people on is growth is a requirement," says Mitch Moncur of Denny's Auto in Riverton, Utah. "I want people not only to be better technicians when they start working here, but I want them to be better boyfriends, better husbands, better spouses, better parents, better humans in general." 

Denny's Auto has been in existence for nearly 60 years, opening in 1963. Moncur, who started at the shop in 2010, is a third-generation shop owner. He shares the role with his father, who once shared it with his father---Moncur's grandfather, Denny. 

At Denny's, the personal development of technicians takes place in the form of one-on-one meetings between Moncur and each member of the team. They discuss what's going on in their personal lives, challenges they're facing, areas they're improving upon. "It's where the rubber meets the road,” says Moncur. For the more ambitious who want to dive deeper into personal development and higher accountability, the shop offers an option Wednesday morning meeting leadership study at 6 a.m. 

 "In the leadership study, we talked about finances, budgeting, and how to create a budget. We're big 'Profit First' fans here. We talk about how to how to communicate better ... not only with people in the shop but people you're going to experience in your day-to-day lives. And we study communication styles, do personality profile tests and things of that nature," says Moncur. 

 For those in service writing or seeking management positions, Moncur uses the Wonderlic Test, which measures cognitive ability and problem-solving skills, and the D.O.P.E. Bird Test, which categorizes people's personalities with their avian counterparts (i.e., dove, owl, peacock, eagle). 

 "It's pretty fun. Everyone likes to take those. I haven't met one person that doesn't like to learn more about their personality," says Moncur. 

Professionally, Moncur looks to outfits such as ATI for its plethora of training classes. He says his primary aim for solidifying educational opportunities for his team members is so they can perform at an optimal level. ATIs curriculum is also customizable, which allows him to work with individual techs to choose the right coursework to match their skill level and trajectory.  

"They have the whole ball of wax, and what's really cool about it is you can design a training path for your individual technicians. So, you're not going to have a high-B-Tech taking, you know, shop safety classes or something like that. You can design to where they're at and it's super useful," says Moncur. 

And for those technicians in his shop who, through one-on-ones and the leadership study, have identified shop ownership as their career goal, Moncur welcomes the opportunity for them to enroll in the management and ownership courses offered by ATI. He doesn't feel threatened or shy away from ambition. He says he's eager to know what their goals and aspirations are so he can provide the proper guidance to get them there.  

“It starts out with what they want in their life and then from there on it's helping them find their weak points and things that they absolutely need to know and being that mentor to them and helping them recognize those holes in their game,” Moncur says. 

"I think the biggest thing I've learned in the Wednesday morning personal development thing is, you know, my job is to lead myself out of a job so I can focus on emerging markets. So that's been my primary thing. If somebody wants my job, I'm not going to shy away from that, I'm going to train them how to do it because I want them to succeed.” 

Molding Apprentices 

Moncur's path to developing an in-house training program for home grow technicians stems from his feeling that the auto care industry hasn't done an adequate job at creating an attractive career path for would-be techs to embrace the industry. He feels it has instead repelled them through poor practices, like unpaid apprenticeships and performing grunt work. Rather than continue that trend, Moncur thought it best to seek advice from a peer on how to best create and implement a successful in-house program.  

 "I went to lunch with Jake Sorensen at McNeill's Auto Repair. They're one of our competitors, and Jake wrote a fantastic training program. I don't use it, but I wanted to kind of pick his brain a little bit, and he was gracious enough to go to lunch with me and talk me through how he designed his," says Moncur. 

Taking inspiration from Sorensen's program, Moncur developed a program consistent with the culture and professional atmosphere at Denny's Auto. He also made apprenticeship a paid position and took aim at training high schoolers interested in auto repair. The apprenticeship is flexible and considers the lives, academics, and extra-curricular activities that would cause conflict with putting in apprenticeship hours in the shop. 

 "One of our apprentices plays lacrosse in the springtime. I can't expect him to be here for half a day when he's playing lacrosse. I do expect them to be here a few times a week, but the apprenticeship is designed to last two years if you are here full-time. So, if they want to play sports or something--which I encourage them to do, I think that teaches you to be a better human, a better teammate--then we're going to work around with that schedule and they're going to get paid when they're here to learn," says Moncur. 

During the apprenticeship, which is set up in modules, Moncur pairs a trainee with a tech who teaches them what they're learning in the module, for example brakes or mounting and balancing tires. When they've completed the module, the apprentice must teach Moncur how to properly change brakes or mount and balance tires before they can move on to the next module. This method of hands-on read-back shows Moncur and the apprentice whether the learning is complete to shop standards and gives Moncur a chance to test the student fully. 

 "I'm really good at playing dumb," says Moncur. "We have one guy trying to get completed off of tires but he's not quite there yet because he wasn't able to answer all of my questions. I want them to know it so well that they can teach it to other people because eventually, if they stick around, they will be that mentor and so they need to know how to teach." 

Building The Bench 

Apprentices at Denny's Auto start out at $12 an hour and as they advance the compensation increases. The goal is to get them to $20 per hour by the time they've completed both the apprenticeship and high school. This would put them into a position to leapfrog technical school, if they wished, to interview for a full-time position right out of high school. Moncur says he aims to have open positions for them but doesn't mind helping to place them at another shop or putting them on his bench for future recall.  

"There's more than enough cars to go around. I think that's something that the automotive industry really sucks--recognizing that. We can all be competitors and help each other out," Moncur says. 

The concept of the bench was something else he picked up through his training at ATI. It's a method for shops to keep a bullpen of technicians to follow up with if no positions exist within the shop, but the technician is a good fit otherwise. Building a bench requires shop owners to continually recruit and interview despite having no positions available. It also means staying in contact with those you've met and interviewed over time to get to know them, give them updates, and invite them to coffee or to hang out with the team. Moncur says it's been a great way for him to build on-going with technicians and service writers he's unable to employ but with whom he wants to stay in contact.  

"We'll go out and grab a beer after work or something like that. I like to pick areas where I know there's going to be blue collar people. We'll go there, and maybe we'll meet someone wearing an automotive uniform--that's a perfect opportunity to pick up a conversation. Or maybe we'll go out to dinner, and we'll have a rockstar waitress--perfect opportunity to kick up a conversation. And if we don't have those opportunities, then we put an ad out on Indeed," Moncur says. 


As the technician shortage continues to affect shops, shops should continually interview candidates and develop a deep bench. Moncur says shops benefit by being personal, being honest, and thinking about the needs of the other person. 

“Treat them like a human being,” Moncur says. “Tell them very bluntly that you're not hiring right now but you want to put them on your bench. People like that. People like clear communication. Be upfront with them.” 

Knuth says well-trained technicians raise the profile of the industry by filling shops with good people. If that can be accomplished, everyone wins. 

“I want the automotive industry to really be portrayed for what it is. It's exciting, it's high level, it's high tech. We're moving into EV and stuff,” Knuth says. “What a great opportunity this is for people.” 

About the Author

Chris Jones | Editor

Chris Jones is the editor of Ratchet+Wrench magazine and host of its companion podcast, Ratchet+Wrench Radio, a weekly show featuring automotive professionals across the auto care landscape.

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