OPINION – A divine question that’s worth asking

Copying, so it’s said, is the most sincere form of flattery.
If that’s true, then every state dealership group should flatter Larry Neill and the Missouri Powersports Dealers Association.
The association, in conjunction with a state technical college, created what looks to be a solid approach to addressing an industry shortcoming: the lack of qualified service technicians.
Linn State Technical College and the dealership association put together a degree program for mechanically inclined students. The two-year program not only will provide students a general understanding of powersports mechanics, but also a paid internship with an association dealership and ultimately an Associate Degree.
“We think it’s a win-win-win program,” said Neill, owner of Larry’s Motor Sports, Jefferson City, Mo., “because it’s good for Linn tech. They’ll get more students. It’s a fantastic program for young men … And the dealer community is going to get qualified young mechanics.”
Because Linn State previously worked with Caterpillar and John Deere in forming a heavy equipment mechanics degree program, there’s little concern on Neill’s part whether this new program will succeed.
In fact, it sounds like such a sensible idea that you wonder if it’s being done elsewhere. The answer: not exactly. Harley-Davidson has a technician degree program with a Kansas college, said Tony DeBoeuf of Linn State, and there are technician certification programs. But neither DeBoeuf nor Neill knows of another partnership that combines a dealer association with a technical college.
Why is that the case? Neill’s own experience could be telling.
For some time, he had been approached by mechanics trained for the airport industry. They couldn’t find jobs in their respective field and came to Neill’s shop looking for the next closest thing. That got Neill thinking — why didn’t technical colleges offer a powersports degree program? After all, motorcycle and ATV sales were constantly on the rise and good mechanic jobs were available.
That’s the question he posed one day after a church service to Donald Claycomb, Linn State’s president. Claycomb said, “Larry we’d do that in a heartbeat if there was a need. But we talk to the state job service, and the job service says they don’t get any calls for mechanics from motorcycle people. There’s just no need.”
In fact, there was a need but Neill and other motorcycle storeowners were not contacting the state job service because they were dissatisfied with the type of candidates they were receiving.
So the two parties were, for a time, at a standstill — the college couldn’t go forward until they had proof of a need. Ultimately, a survey funded by Linn State found the need for technicians. Twenty-five Missouri dealers who responded to the survey said they would need an additional 52 technicians this year and at least 57 more in 2006 because of business growth, retirements and turnover.
With that information in hand, Linn State was able to move forward with the degree program, which was finalized in February.
The degree program, which costs Missouri students $157 per credit hour, contains several initiatives that make sense for dealers. First, students have to qualify by scoring a certain percentage on a mechanics test. That initial phase is key.
“There are a lot of kids that want to be a mechanic,” Neill said. “They tell you they can work on motorcycles, but they really can’t.”
To get into the program, the students also have to be hired as an intern by a dealer who is part of the state dealership association. Once they’ve done that, the student attends Linn State for 16 weeks, concentrating on getting their general education classes completed. Then they spend eight weeks in the spring semester at school before working at the dealership for eight weeks. This pattern continues until they graduate.
Again, there are smart elements tied to this proposal. First, dealers have to agree they can’t hire a student full-time until after he receives an associate degree. And, the dealer association sets up the intern’s schedule, so they’re available at the busiest service times of the year.
Another sensible part of this program is the drug-testing provision. Students have to agree to be drug tested by the college, the dealership or both at any time. If they fail once, they’re out of the program and out of a job. As Neill says, zero tolerance for drugs.
Combine all of it and it appears to be a promising program that should be duplicated in other states, especially when you consider the key elements are already in place. Technical colleges that cater to the auto or airport mechanical industries are widespread. Dealer need is obviously there, although it probably will have to be proved by a survey similar to the one conducted in Missouri. Finding qualified instructors and funding the initial investment in tools and equipment for the technical college have not proven to be difficult at Linn State, DeBoeuf said.
Of course the biggest hurdle will likely be the first step, or in this case the first question. The question that Neill thought enough of to ask a college president after a church service, “Why can’t this happen?”
For our industry’s concern, let’s hope that divine question gets repeated. psb

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