When the fleet departments at Snohomish County, Wash., DeKalb County, Ga. and City of Santa Ana, Calif., began allowing students to work in their shops and learn from experienced technicians, the impetus for all three was the same: They needed the help.
With a growing demand for staff in their maintenance facilities and a dwindling pool of qualified technicians, they were eager to encourage students to seek this career path. Allen Mitchell, retired chief of the Equipment Bureau at Arlington County, Va., helped form the training program at Snohomish County while he was there. As he puts it, “It was getting hard to find qualified technicians — so we decided to develop them.”
Each fleet accomplished its goal of training more qualified workers. But the fleets also learned that’s not the only benefit of pairing technicians with student workers — the programs yield much more for their fleets and for their students.
Same Goal, Different Models
Although these three fleets began with a similar goal in mind, each fleet’s mentoring program shaped up differently.
At Snohomish County in 2010, Mitchell’s fleet took the internship path, partnering with a local community college to source students for the program. Student interns were paid for their work, while also receiving real-world work experience.
Rick Longobart, facilities, fleet, and central stores manager for the City of Santa Ana, Calif., also works with college-level students. However, his fleet’s model differs a bit — instead of paying interns a stipend, time spent in their facility replaces the “lab” portion of an automotive course at Santa Ana College, a local community college. The college allots students 60 hours to spend on site with experienced technicians, and students receive both on-the-job experience and college credits toward an associate degree in automotive technology. Santa Ana relaunched its program a year ago, and so far eight students have participated.
On the opposite coast, Robert Gordon, fleet service superintendent, DeKalb County, Ga., runs a work-based learning program that’s been in place for 10 years. While students still get hands-on experience, they aren’t college-aged. Instead, Gordon works with Warren Technical School, a high-school-level technical school in DeKalb County.
Every school year, 16 slots are available for students to work throughout the fleet department. Because the County has six shops in which students can work, it is able to offer the opportunity to a larger class of students.
For three days a week, three hours per day, students can work in any of the six shops, which include the lube shop, tire shop, heavy truck shop, heavy equipment shop, body shop, and fire and rescue shop.
When Warren Technical School approached Gordon about starting a program, he couldn’t refuse. “There was such a shortage of technicians. We just couldn’t find quality technicians and couldn’t find young people to come in and train. Pairing up with the school allowed us to start training our own future technicians,” he said.
Although his program started several years after Gordon’s, Longobart had a similar experience at the inception of his program. “Our workforce was shrinking — there was a greater demand for work but fewer resources to draw on,” he said. “Our program creates an environment where students learn a trade, but also creates a pool in the workforce from which future workers can be pulled. It’s a total win-win.”
Getting the Program Off the Ground
With clear benefits to both students and fleets, the programs are surprisingly simple to launch, as long as thorough communication with both internal partners and the educational institutions happens up front.
“Starting our program was pretty easy,” Gordon said. “Developing a relationship with the school and making sure they understood our expectations was key. It’s very important to have a relationship with the school so they understand your needs and concerns, and you have to have an open line of communication.”
Longobart worked closely with college staff to nail down the details. “We met with the dean of the college and the instructor of the automotive curriculum. Together we established a mutual agreement that laid out a summary of the students’ work responsibilities — how long they’d work, what they’d learn — a syllabus of sorts,” he said. “Once we all agreed on the syllabus, we made a page-and-a-half memorandum of understanding that went to City administration for adoption and to be reviewed by the legal department. Once those efforts were complete, we launched the program.”
Longobart also suggested working closely with internal partners to get buy-in. “Make sure they understand the effort and what you’re trying to achieve,” he recommends. “Everyone might have a different objective, so set goals and objectives, then look at where you’ll get the resources to accomplish them.”
Based on his own experience, Mitchell agreed these discussions are key. “Starting the program took quite a bit of discussion with Human Resources and Risk Management due to potential liability concerns,” he said. “It also required an agreement be negotiated between the community college and the County. The agreement included responsibilities of both parties, curriculum, reports of hours worked, and the types of vehicles and tasks worked, wages of the interns, etc.”
Mitchell noted it’s also important to find the internal staff willing to take responsibility for on-the-job training — and to pair students with experienced technicians so the work meets both safety and quality parameters.
Longobart also strongly recommended proactive communication with labor unions. “We forewarned the union of what we were doing and they bought into it,” he said. “They understood the benefits and that there wasn’t a threat of losing paid workforce.”
And most importantly, Longobart advised not to shy away from starting a program just because you can’t find the students. Instead, broaden your horizons. “Students can come from anywhere — a college, a high school, or a non-profit. Approach these agencies to see if you can put a plan in place. You’ll be surprised at how many agencies are chomping at the bit to give people exposure.”
Keys to Success: Mentors and Students
Once the basis of the program is set, Mitchell, Gordon, and Longobart said running a beneficial program is more than just making time to host students on-site.
First, choosing mentors who are willing to help — and are eager to teach — is key to offering value to students and keeping them safe.
“We learned that all technicians are not willing or good at being a mentor. And some of the management at various shops didn’t want to be involved. We didn’t want to force it on them,” Gordon explained. “If you’re being forced to do it, you won’t enjoy it; but if your heart is in it, it will be really rewarding. As new technicians come and go, you get a feel for who will be good with students.”
For Gordon, a good mentor is one who develops a genuine relationship with the students. Gordon speaks from experience — this type of relationship has been a valuable part of his own life. “I took machine and welding in school, and the instructor I had was a big mentor to me. He helped me get my first job. To this day we’re still friends,” he said. “I tell the students how the relationships they’re building right now can benefit them in the future. It looks good when you can put someone in your industry down as a reference.”
Reviews of the work and careful instruction on how to properly do the work are just as crucial.
“It’s important to ensure interns receive professional oversight and safety and quality control checks during and after each repair,” Mitchell said. “If discrepancies are found, allow the intern to correct them under close guidance of a professional technician.”
While it’s important to ensure quality mentors participate in the program, Gordon said having clear requirements for students is also critical for the program’s success. “To come to the work site, the student has to develop some work skills before getting here, like proper dress and proper communication. They learn there are certain standards they have to meet to stay in the workplace. The students actually consider it a reward to come out to the work site, so if they aren’t behaving professionally, they can’t attend,” he said. “If you’re going to start a program, make sure you don’t have to manage behavior or it will jeopardize it. Fortunately for us, Warren Tech is very, very good at that.”
For Longobart, participation in the program mirrors real life in the workforce. Students must arrive professionally dressed with a resume and cover letter in hand. Then, a panel of interviewers asks six standard questions — just like they were applying for the job. “We’re up-front with the students and tell them we want them to learn and take the job seriously. They know their responsibilities up front. So we take the students who want to do it, not have to do it.”
Safety is also a key requirement for students. At Warren Tech, students take safety and pollution prevention training before ever entering the shop. “The school requires the students to be safety-certified before they can come to the job site,” Gordon said. “It’s important that training is in place before they start — we don’t have time to teach them safety basics once they get here. In 10 years of having students on-site, we haven’t had an injury yet.”
Paid or Unpaid, Internships Pay Off
With the intent to build a broader base from which to hire technicians, all three fleets accomplished their initial goal. But more benefits abounded, both for fleets and students.
Longobart said he would highly recommend other fleets seek to establish similar programs. “It’s a great collaboration — the school district has a better educational offering, the City has the workforce it needs, and students get real-world experience.” The City of Santa Ana also saves on labor costs, as Santa Ana College pays the students’ Workers’ Compensation insurance.
A perhaps unexpected benefit for DeKalb County was having a more engaged workforce. “One of the big positives for our own people is that they have a better sense of the value of their job because of their work with the students,” Gordon said. “They take a lot of pride in working with the students and enjoy passing on the knowledge. They look forward to the students coming in.”
Longobart said the feeling is mutual on the students’ side. “The students really appreciate the input from senior technicians — they provide dynamic information they’d never learn in class,” he said. “We don’t just give them a broom and a shovel and have them do remedial work — they’re doing technical work and working side by side with senior technicians. And they get great insights along the way. Students get exposure to all sorts of specialized equipment and fuel types that they’d never get to experience in the classroom or even at the dealership level. They get real-time experience and understand the responsibility of customer service, being on time, creating work orders, and more.”
Of course, students also get experience that translates beyond the classroom. “The main benefit is enhancing students’ ability to be employable after the internship,” Mitchell said. “Our interns got some real job experience in addition to their education. They also received consideration for hiring when openings occurred.”
But beyond the work skills they acquire, students develop a strong work ethic and become more productive members of society. “We’re located in an urban area, so the students learn to work in a diverse workforce. That’s a huge benefit for them moving forward in their professional careers, and it makes them better students and better citizens,” Gordon said. “When they go out to apply for a job, having some real work experience is a big benefit. Interacting with professional technicians improves their work habits and develops them as people — and that makes them more productive members of society. Whether they come to work for us or not, it’s a huge benefit to both of us.”
Perhaps most importantly, students develop a strong sense of self — something Gordon said many of his students are lacking upon arrival. “Some students have given up on themselves. They don’t have a great image of themselves. Some won’t even make eye contact — they just stare at the floor,” he said. “But we’ve turned them around. By the end of the program, they interact with the guys, joke around with them, and build relationships with the technicians that last far beyond the program.”
When Gordon thinks back on the true impact his program has had on students, two come to mind immediately. One had such a strong connection to the technician he worked with that he gives his mentor a Father’s Day card each and every year. He still comes back to visit.
The other grew up in a volatile home, and later a foster home that wasn’t much better. When Gordon’s technicians realized the young man wasn’t going to celebrate Christmas, they threw their own celebration, each bringing a tool to the party. The boy’s Christmas present that year? A full set of his very own tools. “We made a real impression on his life,” Gordon said.
DeKalb County is working on another contribution to the future of their students: a National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certification program. “We’re still working on getting the certification complete, but we’re trying to make it so students can come away with a certificate that will help them in the future.”
Checklist for Getting Started
Thinking about starting your own student program? Consider the following:
- Reach out to local high schools, colleges, or non-profits, to identify students with which you can work.
- Gain buy-in from internal partners, including management and staff.
- Meet with leadership at the school or organization to understand the needs of students,
- their current curriculum, and how their work at your facility will meet both your needs.
- Communicate with any labor unions so they understand the program is not a threat to their workforce.
- Set goals and objectives for the program.
- Identify resources needed to operate the program, including budget dollars to pay interns (if required).
- Identify students’ work responsibilities and determine the number of days/hours they will spend on-site.
- Create an agreement or memorandum of understanding with the partner organization.
- Assess the interest of technicians on staff in being a mentor, then choose those who fit best.
- Ensure students get work skills and safety training prior to beginning the program.
The Benefits of Mentoring Programs
Whether it’s an internship, apprenticeship, or workforce development program, benefits abound for both students and fleets.
- Additional help in the shop
- More engaged workers
- Adding candidates to a shrinking workforce
- Training a pool of candidates from which you can hire.
- On-the-job training
- Exposure to a wider range of equipment and fuel types
- Development of work skills
- Increased likelihood of employment after graduation
- Improved work ethic
- Valuable networking and references
- Higher self-esteem.
- Robert Gordon, fleet service superintendent, DeKalb County, Ga.
- Rick Longobart, facilities, fleet, and central stores manager, City of Santa Ana, Calif.
- Allen Mitchell, retired chief, Equipment Bureau, Arlington County, Va.