Balancing act: Technology and technical training

Jason Cannon

January 17, 2013

Dealers across the country invest hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in technology upgrades and technician training.

Mike and Joe Nacarato just poured millions of dollars into their new Volvo truck dealership in Nashville, Tenn., which includes 28 service bays. The brothers say they spend upwards of $100,000 annually on training, and would gladly invest more if they could find the right personnel to educate.

But with all the emphasis on getting the latest and greatest equipment and learning how to use it, are technicians losing their grip on mechanical fundamentals?

Kirk Rutherford, manager of private fleet, maintenance and equipment at Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, thinks so.

“Diagnosing the root problem is a big issue,” he says of problems he’s experienced in dealership service departments across the country. “Technology and computers are part of the issue with maintenance vendors. “

While Rutherford appreciates that dealers nationwide have made substantial investments in equipment that can get his trucks back on the road faster than ever, he sees a fundamental problem that’s actually costing his company more downtime.

“We seem to lose focus that it is still a combustion engine,” he says. “The first step is to check the computer. New technology comes out every day, but the heart of the truck is the engine.”

Rutherford says technicians have been conditioned to use computers to read fault codes. But more often than not, the fault code was caused by a larger problem that goes undiagnosed by the system’s software.

“We’ve got to train them,” he says. “We give them a great place to work but we’ve got to train them. We can see the break. We can see the problem. We have to train them to find the cause. What caused the unit to break? Then fix the cause. Don’t just fix the break.”

M&W Transport CEO Mike McFarland says the problem of being technologically savvy but less mechanically inclined is becoming more widespread.

“This is not a unique problem,” he says. “It’s got to do with the complexity of the electronics. Take the computers out of the shop and how many technicians could find and fix a serious problem now? Everything in the truck runs through a computer now.”

McFarland says in many cases, testing only reveals a small part of the problem; small enough to temporarily clear the fault code and get the truck back on the road.

“Diagnostic testing doesn’t (always) find and correct the root problem,” he says. “Then we have to come back for another fault, or maybe even a bigger problem because the cause of the first problem was never addressed.”

Nacarato Service Leader Clint Draper – whose dealership employs 53 body and service techs with plans to add five more people over the next six weeks – says it sometimes can be difficult to balance technological and fundamental training, but he’s done so by pairing new techs with seasoned veteran tutors.

“We are fortunate to have a large number of techs with 15 to 20 years of experience who are well versed in old school mechanical troubleshooting and repair, as well as the latest technology,” Draper says, adding that the shop’s master technicians provide hands-on support to the new techs.

“We use our master techs as mentors to our younger guys while enrolling them in the current Volvo technical training, and (the master techs also lead) our newer techs through the entire repair until such time as they become proficient with the repair.”

Technical and technological training is continuously on-going Draper says, with each tech required to complete a set amount of monthly continuing education across both areas.

“Everyone learns and retains what they learn at different levels,” he adds, “so the key to it all is require the training, require a high level of expectations and reward the ones who excel.”

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