As we roll into the second half of 2023, a few things remain the same: the diesel industry continues to chug along…and so does the tech shortage. Bringing new techs into the industry—and attracting youngsters to the field—remains top of mind for many.
Enter Iron Buffalo Truck & Trailer Repair of Denver, Colorado, and their incredible training program. Our most recent Shop Owners Roundtable featured Iron Buffalo co-owner Mike Schwarz and Diesel/Automotive Technology Advisor Ian Matje. The two sat down with Fullbay CEO Patrick McKittrick and COO Chris O’Brien to talk about the program itself, how they incentivize young techs, and much more.
It’s an awesome webinar, so we hope you’ll watch the whole thing, but keep reading for some highlights!
HOW DID THE PROGRAM START?
Like everyone else in the industry, Iron Buffalo worried about where the next generation of techs would come from. They also knew that connecting with local schools would be an important step. Amazingly, they found a high school just seven miles up the road from their current location that had 1) realized they needed to start encouraging the trades, and b) built a huge, glorious facility with it.
Iron Buffalo teamed up with the school: “We now sponsor the school, and the students all wear our uniform,” Mike says.
The teacher at the program? None other than Ian—who ended up moving over to Iron Buffalo to act as their tech instructor.
WHAT DOES TRAINING LOOK LIKE FOR IRON BUFFALO INTERNS?
An internship with Iron Buffalo is basically a summer job for local teenagers…with perks. “[We pay them] more than Chipotle, which I think is $17/hr in Colorado during the summer,” Mike says. Iron Buffalo and the school continued to build out the program for those who wanted to continue down the diesel road, adding a level two block that focuses on diag work and teardowns, and even a special program for seniors who can head in to work after classes are done at 11.
Seniors that graduate from the program and want to keep working for Iron Buffalo…well, they do just that; their year of work is basically treated as “a year-long working interview.” If they do stick with Iron Buffalo, they’re off to a great start in life: “When the first batch graduated, they started at $27/hour with a $4,000 tool allowance.”
“It’s an awesome opportunity,” Ian says.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT TRAINER
Just because someone is an excellent technician does not mean they’re going to be the World’s Best Trainer. Mike recalls visiting with TMC and receiving the following advice: “You want a camp counselor for your kids … someone who treats them like they’re part of a club … and [who] works with them and invest[s] and engage[s] like a teacher does.”
The teacher is not responsible for a ton of kids, though. Iron Buffalo currently has roughly 25 techs, and they’re comfortable hiring six or more interns for the summer. These interns are spread across their two shifts.
IT’S ALL ABOUT SETTING EXPECTATIONS
Part of designing a good learning curriculum is setting up the right expectations. You are not going to start a youngster on a $60,000 engine. You’re just not. Let them know they’ll start out doing basic jobs: brakes, tires, cleaning the shop. You know, the stuff apprentices have cut their teeth on for years.
Communicating this clearly to interns is a big part of why Iron Buffalo’s program has been so successful. These kids know they’re starting out small—but they also know that as they increase their skill set, and build trust with their bosses, they’ll start getting the bigger stuff.
FROM INTERNSHIPS TO RETENTION: MAKING TECHS FEEL LIKE THEY BELONG
It’s no secret that the industry doesn’t just have a problem with hiring; retention continues to be a hot topic, especially with younger techs. These newer generations want and expect a different kind of employment, and shops have had to look at how they operate—and, in some cases, make changes.
Iron Buffalo holds staff lunches for everyone every 4-6 weeks, but it’s not just about the food. They’re also constantly looking at their bonus and incentive programs, and considering what techs these days want. They’ve looked at four-day workweeks and flexible schedules, though Mike admits implementing these pose challenges.
But no matter what hours techs are expected to work, treating people fairly and with respect is the bedrock of Iron Buffalo’s retention philosophy. “The big thing for us is that we want them to feel like they’re part of our family and that we care about them,” Mike says. “It’s gonna be unmistakable to them.”
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE
We’ve touched on some interesting topics in this blog post, but really, the entire webinar is well worth a watch! In it, Mike and Ian also cover:
- The raise structure for new techs.
- How they’ve modeled that structure on the “up or out” method in big consulting firms.
- The frequency of state-required advisory meetings and partnerships with colleges.
- How they handle safety, cleanliness, and comebacks.
- How Mike comes up with comp plans and incentive plans that will appeal to their techs, including bonuses for quarterly top billers, PTOs, and even a vacation for the top biller.
For shop owners who have been wondering about how to start connecting with schools (or how to start their own internship/apprenticeship program), this entire episode will absolutely rock your world. It takes hard work and dedication to build a strong educational funnel between schools and shops, but it can—and should—be done.
So go ahead and give it a listen! And we’ll see you again for another Shop Owners Roundtable soon.