Automotive training and the way of the future

We all know that the car of the 2020s is different beast from those of the 1970s. The engine bay of a MkII Ford Escort is positively roomy by comparison to that of a current year Audi Q2. Besides space, technology has moved on – EV and hybrid vehicles are good examples of this.

But along with new technologies, supply chain shortages and general financial pressures have meant that training of technicians has never been so important. Just as cars have developed with new technologies, so the way knowledge has been disseminated has changed too.

Bob Wiffen, Workshop Solutions Director at LKQ Euro Car Parts, recognises the importance of training. With the automotive industry going through a period of unprecedented change, he says that “businesses of all sizes need to keep up. It’s our responsibility to make sure that smaller, independent operators don’t get left behind, and to help them adapt their businesses and remain competitive.”

He highlights that around 350,000 people are employed by the independent aftermarket in the UK – “around twice the number working in the OEM supply chain.” For him, training helps to protect those livelihoods and “retain the vital service they provide to consumers and businesses.”

A move online, but…

For Luke Garratt, UK & Nordics Technical Services Manager at Delphi Technologies Aftermarket, the pandemic accelerated the move towards online learning. As he points out, “given that much of the supply chain, aftermarket and many independent garages closed down during the first lockdown the only opportunity to train was online… many garage owners and technicians actually looked to use this time constructively, whether in working on premises or in investing in skills.” He says that this sparked good interest in training for Delphi.

James Dillon, founder of Technical Topics, also acknowledges the direction of travel. He says that “the proportion of online versus face-to-face training has changed,” he nevertheless notes that “there are still topics and subject matter than can only be delivered in the face-to-face format – particularly where there is a skills assessment requirement, for instance Electric Vehicle Level 3 and 4.”

And Garratt agrees. He comments that those seeking out Delphi’s technical training “are practical people so there’s an obvious benefit to develop skills through hands-on training provision.” He adds that “many garage technicians just learn best this way – this means not only face-to-face delivery in classrooms but extensive demonstration and practical workshop learning within the courses.” And this is why Delphi’s training academy uses vehicles, test-rigs, workshop equipment and example parts.

However, Dillon concedes that some subjects, such as Dealer Diagnostic Tool training, are well suited to online delivery because “the subject matter can use a computer-based tool to achieve a real-life outcome.” Even so, he says that “we can replicate the required use cases virtually, and then provide coaching via the online module on how to use it correctly, or how to overcome problems.”

The challenge though is combining in-person with online. Garratt gives the example of hybrid electric vehicle training where Delphi offers six hours of online pre-learning on electrical systems to get the foundation of knowledge to build upon. For him, in-person results are much better after pre-learning.

Paul Dineen, Head of Servicesure at GSF Car Parts, also thinks hybrid learning is the way forward because “accessibility and quality of digital training has been rising in recent years and it’s something we saw a real appetite for before the pandemic.”

Dineen points to Servicesure’s partnering with Our Virtual Academy which offers “a comprehensive suite of online and in-person training” with access to IMI-accredited courses for traditional mechanical topics, as well as a Master Tech Level 4 EV and Hybrid course. In his view, with a skills shortage in the industry becoming a bigger challenge “having professionally accredited courses that are remotely accessible via digital channels can help to accelerate our ability to address this.”

Is online detrimental to training outcomes?

Possibly, but the answer isn’t clear cut.

In any situation, being in front of another no matter the situation has distinct benefits, particularly when it comes to non-verbal communications. We all know that Zoom and Teams can work wonders but that there is no substitute for seeing the whites of another’s eyes.

And it’s this that Dillon’s firm believes in. As he says, “body language and facial expressions are used by skilled trainers to assess understanding (or lack of it) … these are obviously missing when the two parties are remote from each other.” Here he says that remote learning means that instructors must employ other methods to assess learning, but this can slow the progress of training.

Garratt thinks the same, noting that “good trainers engage with their audience… people learn best through sharing ideas and telling stories.” Delphi bolsters this thinking with trainers with workshop experience which garages can then relate to because, as Garratt says, people like to learn from those “who have some idea of their working environment and some shared experiences.” He adds another benefit – trainers can encourage the shy out of their shadows.

Of course, highly technical topics work best face-to-face. Dillon feels that this is especially so where the subject “requires the technician to get hands-on with the vehicle, system or tool – virtual training, even high-end augmented reality training solutions, simply cannot replicate the benefits of being in the real world.” He strongly believes that “there are sensory clues, tactile, visual and audible feedback of many tasks which cannot – yet – be effectively replicated remotely or virtually.”

But as we saw during the pandemic, while some things must be done in person, there are many tasks that can be done remotely and learning is, to a degree, a good example of this and with it comes some benefits.

Apart from the ability to meet without spreading germs, there is the obvious cost benefit that follows from not having to travel which saves on time, fuel, accommodation, meals, and loss of earnings for the garage when an employee is absent.

For Garratt, the benefits of online are that they “provide flexible access to knowledge and skills development that can be undertaken anytime and anywhere.” Also, he knows that online can provide “a knowledge-base to refer back to and can be essential for showing things that can’t easily be demonstrated on a training course.” An example of this that he gives is ADAS calibration that’s better filmed and shared by video than recreated in a workshop.

It also needs to be understood that workshops can be very stressful places so being able to study from home or elsewhere can work wonders. And so, for Garratt, “the key thing is to be flexible. It’s never going to be ‘one size fits all’ with different businesses, skills levels, personalities, and training content.” In fact, from Delphi’s point of view he says that “the challenge is to encourage curiosity and to help take the fear factor away.”

However, from Dillon’s perspective, he naturally thinks that in-person training is still valuable. As he says, “our technician and garage business clients feel that coming to training is worth this extra cost. What is the point of having cheap training when what garages and technicians need to prosper is good training?”

He takes the thinking further and states that “good training experiences rely on a change of environment (being at a training centre) to signal that ‘this is training time’.” It’s the same argument that can be applied to someone being in overalls and then changing into something suitable for a formal event.

But beyond the actual learning that takes place when at an offsite location, Dillon sees other side benefits that follow on such as the less formal conversations that occur during breaks. As he says, “this cannot happen with a remote learner, who is perhaps working from the familiar surroundings of home or their workplace.”

It should be said that Dillon’s firm does backup face-to-face learning with online too. The company maintains a private Whatsapp group, and a remote training portal, TTHQ-remote.com, that he says, “ensures that they develop at a pace commensurate with their own learning and development goals.”

There’s nothing that the others have said that Dineen disagrees with. However, while he knows that it’s difficult to replicate in a digital format the level of engagement that can be had from in-person training, “the accessibility of online training from both geographic and timing perspectives is a real benefit – the pandemic also accelerated people’s adoption of this kind of learning and how comfortable they are with technology, so the idea of taking part in a virtual course is no longer as alien a concept as it once was.”

It’s interesting that Dineen comments that GSF works with garages that, in some cases, span entire generations of families and “it’s been encouraging to see an appetite for this kind of training from seasoned professionals, not just younger mechanics.”

And with, as he says, “a golden age for technology that offers unprecedented accessibility and flexibility for learning” virtual training is more cost efficient for both providers and learners. This is significant considering the impact that the cost-of-living crisis and high energy costs on SME owners.

Learning for loyalty

While most learning understandably is chargeable, some is offered by parts vendors that offer garages base level training ‘free’ or at low cost, either as rebates on spend or as part of a soft franchise scheme. While useful Dillon thinks that “these schemes are designed to ensure garages loyalty to the parts vendors parts offer.”

He adds that these suppliers “seem to offer their training in an attempt to differentiate a commodity parts offer, and to secure the highest proportion of the parts spend… it is not a benevolent measure, and it will probably never be part of their core business.” However, for him this free training opens doors to those garages where there’s a desire to embed the idea of learning.

Garratt acknowledges everything that Dillion says and notes that “distributors gain various direct and indirect benefits from training.” However, he feels the training is “often more long-term and about providing contact with brands or products to help them understand the opportunities and to trust and value those brands.”

And training can benefit all, especially competent garages who win more work and spend more with their factors. But as Garratt highlights, the most obvious benefit is warranty and returns: “Helping garages understand the products they are buying and fitting as well as the problems, pitfalls, things to do and look out for reduces the pain of product failures which involve product returns, warranty claims and customer reworks.”

But for Dineen, GSF wants to be seen as not just a parts supplier, but as “an extension of a garage owner’s business that adds genuine value.” For his firm, “by working closely… professional training providers… we support the development of our customers’ skillsets and the growth of their business.” As GSF knows, “success is intrinsically linked to that of the customers we service.”

Making a difference to skills and competence

We’ve seen – as the trade well knows – that rate of technological change in vehicles has been rapid. And without decent skills and training, Dillon sees technicians and garages struggle to effect a first-time fix which can leave customers unhappy. He makes the point that “a garage with a cheap labour rate – possibly because they don’t invest in training – may be more expensive for the total job as they will take longer to do it, perhaps fitting unnecessary parts as their systems understanding and diagnostic processes aren’t tip top.” His is the ‘buy right or buy twice’ mentality where a garage can appear initially inexpensive but ends up costing a customer more.

Beyond that Dillon says that “a trained technician is a happy technician. Happy techs are loyal, and work in partnership with the garage they work at. Knowing the ‘what, when, why, where and how’ of their job makes doing the job easy, it takes the pressure off them.” This to his mind is the hidden return of training.

Also, good training programmes can help garages to recruit, develop, and retain talented technicians – a point to remember given the wider staff shortage in the aftermarket. And this is something that Garratt has seen. Considering the individual, he says that “investment in training can also pay off with staff retention and recruitment for sure. If you feel your skills are not being developed or you’re stagnating in your job. then it becomes more likely you’ll move to the garage down the road for a slightly bigger pay packet.” He continues: “Support through an ongoing training programme means a different equation… as you might see a long-term gain in staying beyond simple monetary value.”

And Wiffen agrees. He says that independents – with lower prices for labour and parts – enjoy a competitive advantage over the dealerships and will do so for “as long as they continue to develop and retain top talent and keep their skills and service offerings up to date.” He’s firm in his view that “offering attractive careers with training and development opportunities is key to addressing the 24,000 vacancies in the industry.”

He adds that training is seen as valuable “proof that training courses are not only here to stay but are a critical factor in ensuring a healthy and competitive aftermarket.”

It follows that seeking feedback is essential to progression and the development of new courses. An example Dillon gives is that of electronics parts unavailability, where he’s developed an electronics repair and eeprom course which allows garages to offer an alternative repair method to keep vehicles on the road. There’s also a relatively new AdBlue and NOx reduction course which “was developed based on the problems our clients were facing in their workshops, getting a first-time fix with on this technology.”

On the subject of new technology, Servicesure has been looking to the ‘new’ EV market; it now has its EVsure add-on with national accreditation and marketing support for workshops. But as Dineen details, his firm’s offering has an added benefit – discounted IMI training. This is why he says that “we’re seeing Servicesure member garages developing skillsets in a way that enables them to diversify their business and tap into this emerging market.”

Wiffen’s also witnessed hybrid and EV training proving popular. He says that “we need to see more garages invest in higher level certification – at the moment only 11 per cent of technicians are fully trained to work on hybrids and EVs, and less than five per cent of those with level 4/5 certification work in the independent sector.” Overall, LKQ hopes to train a further 2,000 technicians in EV and hybrid service, maintenance, and repair in 2023.

Ultimately

It should be said that in an ideal world there would be universal and free technical training. But that world doesn’t exist. And so, solid training, along with an increase in pay, will not only lead to better technical performance and higher customer satisfaction, but also, better staff retention rates and more of the young joining the sector.

As Wiffen notes, investing in diagnostic capabilities is paramount: “Just under half of vehicles turned away from independent garages are rejected because the garage simply cannot diagnose the fault.”

And that cannot be a good thing.

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