Cam Clark knows he can recruit veteran service repair technicians from outside to work in his Airdrie, Alberta, Ford dealership. But he can never be sure what work habits, bad or good, they might bring with them.
"We're in a rural-type community and techs are not always available, particularly young techs," Clark says "We can always pay more and get a tech from a Chrysler or GM store, but there's a reason they're out there looking. Selfishly, we'd rather have them drink the Ford Kool-Aid."
What Clark did to solve the problem has helped not only his western Canada dealership, but the youth of Airdrie, a bedroom community of about 40,000 people north of Calgary. The booming region is dominated by ranching, agriculture and the energy industry.
About 15 years ago, Clark reached an agreement with the regional school district, Rocky View Schools, to host an academy for automotive technicians inside his dealership. About 40 students in grades 10, 11 and 12 from three area high schools attend the academy every weekday to learn all aspects of auto repair.
The Mechanics Training Center is housed in a separate area of Cam Clark Ford and is staffed by two teachers paid by the school district. Clark's own technicians also pitch in to share their knowledge. Clark's service department includes nine technicians he hired after they went through the program.
"The initial investment in equipment 15 years ago was $275,000 [Canadian]," says Clark, whose dealership sells about 3,000 new and used vehicles a year. "With this agreement we agreed to supply space, and all equipment including diagnostics, hoists, tire machines, et cetera.
"We are completely in charge of maintaining, replacing all equipment. Then of course we've got technicians we send over every day. If we pay $35 to $40 [Canadian] an hour to the techs, that is our gift to the school."
When they graduate from high school, the students can get jobs working in dealerships or independent repair shops. Or they can take their apprenticeships to a higher level by attending the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in a Ford-sponsored program that trains students to work on Ford vehicles. After two additional years they emerge with a Red Seal tradesman designation that certifies they are qualified to work on any brand of vehicle.
Fueled by a thriving energy sector, the Alberta economy is booming, and it's easy for kids to get mechanical jobs straight out of high school.
"A lot of these young students are being hired away without getting a post-secondary education," says Clark. "They can hit the oil fields or some of these labor jobs and make $35 to $40 [Canadian]an hour.
"The problem is they wake up at 35, 40 years old and they don't have a trade with no secondary education. With this apprenticeship program it helps make a seamless transition from grade 12 to post secondary."
Clark credits his older brother Kim with developing the concept.
"My brother Kim had a good vision at 30,000 feet, and he could see the long term positive effect this was going to have on our organization," he says. Kim Clark, now 66 and former co-owner of the store, retired a few years ago. But Cam Clark persuaded him to come back as fixed-operations manager.
Cam Clark says that his brother was right: Hosting the service academy has boosted morale in his own service department. "Our technicians dress better, they look better. They feel they're in a responsible position. We have never had a tech turn us down when we present the opportunity [to work with the students]. They all love being involved with the kids."
The center generates its own business, repairing cars owned by parents or members of the community. The center also takes vehicle donations.
"We're priced accordingly," says Lena Spicer, who teaches at the center.
Advanced students get to go over to Cam Clark's working service department to observe repair jobs. The students don't work on customer repair jobs but they can work part time in Clark's Quick Lane oil change operation.
"Once we get them working part time, we see how they work on the floor," says Kevin Schmitke, Cam Clark Ford service manager. "We wind up growing our own technicians. We take kids and, if we raised them right, they grow up to be great technicians."
Spicer says the Mechanics Training Center helps students decide whether they're cut out to work in a repair shop.
"Being in the shop is a bit of a wake-up call for some," she says. "You're not going to get much closer to real life than what we've got going on. They're willing to work hard and solve problems. They're getting a lot of real world learning rather than straight book learning."
Schmitke says students who graduate from the Mechanics Training Center and go on through the post-secondary at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology can earn $80,000 [Canadian] a year or even $110,000 to $120,000 [Canadian] if they're trained to work on diesel engines.
Todd Kiernan, who supervises the Mechanics Training Center for the Rocky View School Division, says the school division has been so encouraged by the program that it may expand to include other trades.
"It's helping us look at other industries to see how does this model benefit students who want to go into construction, fabrication or any of those other industries," he says.
Other school districts are considering similar programs, Kiernan says.
Cam Clark is expanding the concept to his dealership in Red Deer, Alberta, a city of about 100,000 between Edmonton and Calgary.
Though he gets a lot of benefit when graduates come back to work in his shop, Clark doesn't mind when graduates of the Mechanics Training Center get jobs at other dealerships.
"We do encourage these kids to go out there and look around," he said. "There are success stories with other local franchises, and we're happy with that. We have to be. We only have the capacity for so much."
And despite his efforts, Clark doesn't see the shortage of mechanics going away any time soon: "That's pretty much the need, the desperate need. The industry is going to be faced with it for next 50 years."
You can reach Bradford Wernle at email@example.com