Training That Transforms a Job

By Jeremy Smerd

Mar. 23, 2007

The partnership between General Motors and Raytheon Professional Services that resulted in the GM Service Technical College and revamped training for dealership mechanics at GM has worked so well that some mechanics have been poached by competitors like the Ford Motor Co.

    Mark Hardman, a service technician with a Cadillac dealership 25 miles north of Detroit, says mechanics have used the automotive training skills they have developed with the help of Raytheon and GM’s training to leave their dealership for jobs with other companies in the auto industry, including as trainers for Raytheon and mechanics and engineers for Roush Fenway Racing and Ford.

    “The training is too good,” Hardman says. “Other guys are getting jobs elsewhere.”

    “Ford wants to take us and put us in their technical departments,” he adds, referring to engineering positions at Ford.

    Mechanics leave in part because the work is grueling, greasy and paid by commission, not by the hour.

    “You have to be trained and experienced to handle anything that comes in,” Hardman says. “Cars get towed in. They’re dead; they don’t run. There’s three feet of snow in the parking lot and you have to push the car in to get paid.”

    Hardman, 30, has worked on Cadillacs for the past 10 years, but he also does his share of oil changes. By the end of the week his knees hurt.

    Colleagues have used their training to get less physically demanding, though lower-paying, jobs as instructors, engineers and technical writers, he says.

    “You can see how it’s tempting to get a tech job or get an office job,” he says.

    Ten years ago, the career path of a shop mechanic—like the training program for service technicians and the line of cars Cadillac was producing—was narrow and limited.

    At that time, Cadillac built three car models: the Seville, DeVille and Eldorado. All were similar front-wheel-drive cars.

    Hardman, meanwhile, was a 20-year-old yard mechanic at a heavy truck repair facility in Roseville, Michigan, just outside Detroit. He worked on tractor-trailer steel haulers, doing light electrical work, oil changes and other grease jobs.

    Wanting to work as a diesel mechanic for Caterpillar, Hardman inquired about degree programs at nearby Macomb Community College. The college didn’t offer diesel mechanic training, but it did offer dealership apprentice programs for service technicians.

    Hardman began working at Crestview Cadillac in Rochester, Michigan, just north of Detroit, around the same time GM was expanding its Cadillac line. The new models combine elements from a variety of GM’s existing lines: a sports car based on a Corvette engine, and an SUV, the Escalade, built on the chassis of a GM truck.

    The new training for service technicians, provided by Raytheon at GM Service Technical College, is also something of a crossover, combining the know-how of all of GM’s product lines into one curriculum that’s as easy to access as typing a question into a search engine, Hardman says.

    “You can be continuously trained and fed information about all their products,” Hardman says. “It’s just amazing.”

    The key to making a good living as a mechanic is to “fix it right the first time” Hardman says, repeating what has become the mantra of the GM Service Technical College.

    “There is a direct relationship between my training and fixing it right the first time,” he says. “With Raytheon’s training I was able to understand the things I needed to test for.”

    That means following repair procedures outlined in online training manuals in order to diagnose a problem. It can also be as simple as typing the problem into a computer to get a list of possible causes. It has taken Hardman a couple years to master the computers, but the more he is able to navigate the training system, the easier it is for him to produce high-quality repairs, in turn putting money into his pocket and giving him a reason to stay where he is—as long as his knees remain strong.

    “The whole program has given me a life I never thought I could have had,” Hardman says. “It got me trained, and now I feel very valuable in the industry.”

    One of the most important lessons that Reindl has drawn from this experience is that workforce management initiatives never get off the ground unless there is significant support and commitment from executives at the top.

    He has also learned the value of looking beyond the technical capabilities and leadership potential that a job candidate has to offer. Reindl is a big believer in looking for intangible qualities in an individual—the things they either have or they don’t. Passion is one such trait.

    “You simply can’t teach somebody about passion,” Reindl says. “Our work involves putting a foreign object in somebody’s body, therefore we only hire those who are seriously passionate.”

    Reindl also values an individual who is self-confident, but not arrogant. “There is a big difference between being sure of one’s capabilities and being arrogant,” he says. “Thinking you know it all or trashing your former employers won’t get you in these doors.”

Jeremy Smerd writes for Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management.

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