Understanding and Retaining Your Young Technicians

July 31, 2023
Developing young techs and helping them reach their goals is vital to the industry. 

When Ross Colket made the decision to open Colket Automotive Technical Services in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, back in 2007, he knew exactly who to call. At the time, Colket taught classes at the Carquest Technical Institute (CTI), and he had a student who stood out to him.  

“I was very impressed with his mechanical skillset,” Colket says.  

So Colket gave him a ring when he opened up his shop, and that student worked for Colket for about two years before taking the leap and diving into shop ownership himself. Since then, Colket has made a habit of hiring and developing young, fresh-out-of-school technicians, with many having gone on to see success throughout their professional careers. 

Finding and developing good young techs is vital to the industry as older techs retire and fewer people enter the field, leaving a widespread shortage of technicians. At the same time, it’s just as important for shops to create pathways for fresh techs to develop and reach their personal career goals.  

But finding good young techs and establishing pathways for their personal and professional development doesn’t come without its challenges.  

Generational Challenges 

Colket has successfully found good, fresh techs fairly regularly—he says he currently has two good younger hires working for him now—but he’s well aware not every tech who makes it through school is guaranteed to succeed or will be the right fit for his shop.  

In reality, he says, really only two out of every 20 students in a graduating class will be poised for success in the industry. There are a couple of reasons why.  

When Colket was growing up, he lived on a farm and his family ran a brick manufacturing business. He grew up with a very mechanical background, having worked on cars and farm equipment for the family business and all before he’d entered the auto industry.  

But he says nowadays with how complex car repair has become that fewer and fewer people are growing up fixing their own vehicles, and thus have lost that mechanical background. On top of that, there are fewer opportunities for the current generation to gain experience with vehicle repair prior to school. 

For many, tech school is their first time under the hood of a car.  

“I had conversations with some tech school teachers, and it used to be, you know, they would get into doing quite a bit of repair on a high school level,” Colket says. “Now it’s more lefty, righty … ‘This is a washer; this is a nut.’ They’re starting on a much more (basic) level.”  

Additionally, much of what students are learning in tech schools is outdated, says Jim Cokonis, a longtime industry trainer, teacher and curriculum developer.  

“You have a guy who learned and did a great job on an old coach flat-tire changer and a bubble balancer and you put him in a shop with modern equipment, and he doesn’t even know how to run it,” Cokonis says.  

That requires shops to retrain young techs after bringing them on.  

Training and Inspiration 

At Colket Automotive Technical Services, training—or retraining—young techs has become part of what they do. Colket says when they hire a fresh-out-of-school tech, they’ll have them shadow a more experienced tech.  

When applicable, they take time for collective teaching moments. If the shop is struggling with a diagnostic issue, Colket is on the shop floor helping the crew figure it out. He also takes one-on-one time with young techs, always willing to teach and train. The techs just need to absorb the information and retain it.  

It’s all part of the team environment Colket has worked to build. Training isn’t something they do just a couple times a year; rather, as Colket says, “It’s a part of the day-to-day operations” of the shop.  

While Colket has had success developing young techs, other shops often struggle to relate to younger generations, Cokonis says. Some who have been working in the industry for some time have the perception that Gen Z doesn’t have a strong desire to work; however, Cokonis has a much different perception.  

“Some of the older instructors, bosses, managers they have, even older than Boomers, they have what they call Silent Generation or World War II-era mentality about discipline in the shop, and they wonder why they struggle with young people,” he says. “That’s as honest as I can be in the assessment of what I have watched transpire.”  

Cokonis says younger generations, Gen Z in particular, are really working to understand a healthy work-life balance.  

“You’ve got them in every Friday night, every Saturday, working six days a week with a day off in the middle of the week. And they have friends and they have recreational activities and things like that,” Cokonis says, “and the job environment isn’t inspiring to them in the long term. So, you’re going to have troubles with retention and attendance.” 

Instead, shops can inspire new hires by identifying their goals and creating pathways for their newbies to reach them. Both Colket and Cokonis noted it’s important to have conversations about goals and interests early on.  

The purpose of that is twofold: First, if you can put new hires in a position that fits their interests, they’ll automatically be more invested in their work. And second, not every shop will be able to help their staff members reach their end goal. They might be a stepping stone, with both the owner and the employee knowing eventually the latter will move on. 

But, Cokonis says, “You should be willing to invest the time to get that person as far as you can get within your organization.” 

Colket says that at his shop currently, he doesn’t have anyone looking to move on. A big part of that is giving new hires opportunities related to their interests while putting them in positions to succeed. If the shop inspires new hires to reach their goals—whether (that's) shop ownership, specialty repairs or becoming a service advisor— they’ll be more invested and dedicated to their work.  

It’s a win-win for the shop and the employee. 

“You need to be supportive of them in training, identify the training opportunities in your area,” Colket says. “… The biggest thing is to support them in it. Pay for the training. Don’t expect them to pay for it. The better they get, the more money they’re going to make.”  

And the better off the shop will be. Colket says he had an accident last fall that caused him to take some time off. While he was gone, the shop ran itself. “I was out of work for two-and-half weeks and they handled it top to bottom,” he says.  

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