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The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) may be running the oldest motor mechanics program in the country, but it's not letting old traditions stand in the way of investigating new approach...

The Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) may be running the oldest motor mechanics program in the country, but it’s not letting old traditions stand in the way of investigating new approaches to turning out apprentice mechanics that can hit the ground running.

SAIT is revatilizing its motor mechanics program, whose roots date all the way back to 1916, by bridging the private-public sector divide. A partnering with the Kenworth Truck Company and its Calgary dealership, GreatWest Kenworth, is adding technical and equipment resources to what is already one of Canada’s best mechanics programs.

“Their help brings us up another level, providing the missing link of outside assistance in developing an ever-evolving curriculum. In addition, this relationship gives our students hardware and systems they can work on. This is priceless to our students,” says Brian Moukperian, the school’s Dean of Transportation. “What we have now is a true partnership between industry and the classroom.”

So far the truck OEM has provided a dash assembly for electrical mockups, diagnostic tools for ABS systems, and plans to provide an HVAC system in the near future. “We’re also working closely with the Institute on technical training and have hosted several SAIT instructors at our regional training sessions,” explains Carl Garrod, Kenworth’s Service Training Manager at its Seattle head office.

Kenworth and the trucking industry at large, of course, will be the ultimate beneficiaries of a system churning out better trained apprentice mechanics. Paul Storwick, Dealer Principal for GreatWest Kenworth, was instrumental in forming the alliance and believes it will cut down on Kenworth’s future training requirements.

“The heavy duty technician training is never ending, but any step or advance you have is great. We can’t afford to make errors today, we need to have bright people to diagnose the problem in today’s world – it’s just a much more high tech product that we are putting out there,” says Storwick.

The current school environment for the technician is good, he says, but it can be better.

“I feel partnerships with educational institutions are a way of the future, I believe that we play a role in this big picture and we have to work together within it. We can’t rely on the institutions alone to be able to produce a product without our input, and we’ve been given the opportunity to have some input and they’re listening to our needs,” Storwick says.

SAIT students enter a one-year technician program. Upon graduation, the students have two years left to complete their training (three years without an SAIT degree) in the private sector working as apprentices before becoming journeyman mechanics.

The majority of the apprentices that go through the program at SAIT come to it from another trade, or with some sort of operator skill set and looking to become a mechanic. Another portion of students will graduate and acquire jobs in the service side of the industry such as service advisors, part sales, service writers or assistant managers. Almost three-quarters of SAIT’s graduates go right into the trade.

The Kenworth/SAIT partnership began in 2000 when Storwick met with Maurice Buffel, SAIT’s Project Coordinator, to learn more about the Institute and how his dealership could help produce apprentice mechanics who could hit the ground running. “That was our number one goal,” recalls Storwick. “SAIT is nationally known, but we felt if the mechanics could train on today’s vehicles and components and have access to OEM training material, they’d be better prepared for the real world.”

“Exactly,” echoes Moukperian. “When you think about it, our number one customer has to be the employer. After all, they’re the one hiring our students. Therefore we need to listen to their needs and allow them to give us strategic direction. As a result, this better prepares our students for immediate employment.”

Garrod agrees that the crossover between education and business is essential to the survival of the industry.

He says teaming industry leaders with schools will benefit the dealers because they will have more skilled technicians at the entry level, and even though the apprenticeship opportunities at SAIT allow the students to find employment with other companies, Garrod says that the assistance that Kenworth can provide these trainees will help the overall outlook of the industry.

“The industry is changing so quickly and we need to support the schools because it is difficult for the institutions to keep up with costs continually increasing,” he says.

The affiliation with Kenworth could be the beginning of a productive trend.

“We would like to show other companies like Volvo and Freightliner what we are doing with Kenworth and try to fit the needs of every manufacturer, because every employer has a slightly different slant. Some are just trying to move forward and widen their training base, while others are very community minded and are willing to build a relationship with schools, so there are a number of forces at work depending on who you sit down and talk to,” Moukperian says.

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