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SCARBOROUGH, Ont. - Volvo Trucks Canada may advertise a tag line of "drive smart", but it's also looking for new technicians who can "fix smart".Labor shortages aren't only hitting spots behind the w...

SHOP TALK: Volvo's Michael O'Connell takes a moment with student Kerry Haslett.(Photo By John G. Smith)
SHOP TALK: Volvo's Michael O'Connell takes a moment with student Kerry Haslett.(Photo By John G. Smith)

SCARBOROUGH, Ont. – Volvo Trucks Canada may advertise a tag line of “drive smart”, but it’s also looking for new technicians who can “fix smart”.

Labor shortages aren’t only hitting spots behind the wheel, but are also affecting back shops. That’s why the truck maker is tackling the issue head on with a new 36-week program that guarantees apprenticeships for selected students at Centennial College.

Looking out on a Volvo shop, the average age of a technician is between 40 and 50, notes human resources manager Linda Schnabel. Within a decade, about 40 per cent will be preparing to retire.

“You need to develop people and you need to develop them now so they can grow,” she says. “We’re trying to plant some seeds.”

Although the program was officially unveiled last month, its students have been in the course since September. They’ll graduate in June.

Through the Volvo Modified Apprenticeship Program, students spend 32 weeks in class and four weeks in a work placement. But then they’re guaranteed a spot with a Volvo dealer in Ontario, where they can complete the remaining two years of their apprenticeships. After that, apprentices will be able to write their Certificate of Qualification (Truck Coach 310T Technician’s Licence).

Provincial and federal governments pay the tuition, while Employment Insurance benefits are also available for those who qualify. Volvo picks up the tab for equipment used in the program, and the apprenticeship.

Hopeful students face a battery of tests when they first apply to the program. Only those who pass pre-entry tests in English, mathematics and mechanical reasoning are considered, but they’re also screened by Volvo’s candidate assessment. Of the 50 who applied, 19 were admitted. (A 20th spot wasn’t filled because other candidates weren’t qualified enough.)

“There is a chronic and growing shortage of qualified technicians in the industry,” says Michael O’Connell, president of Volvo Trucks Canada. “It’s very important that all manufacturers in the trucking industry follow this path.”

For Kerry Haslett, it was an easy sell. He had already tinkered with in-board diesel engines on the family boat, and with a 1971 Volkswagen Superbeetle, when he stumbled across an ad for the program in the newspaper.

He admits that the placement tests were easy enough. “You either had it or you didn’t,” he says.

Unlike Europeans, North Americans continue to look down on trades, he says. But gone are the days when anyone with basic schooling can be a mechanic.

For the students, the path doesn’t end here. Volvo is also developing a management program.

The program is particularly important in the era of modern trucks, adds Centennial president Richard Johnston. “This will be a state- of- the- art operation and a model for the rest of the industry.”

But Johnston admits it can be a difficult sell at the high school level, until parents, guidance councilors and students are told about opportunities and salaries that can range between $60,000 and $80,000 per year. “You can hear their collective jaws hitting the floor.”

The college has similar Modified Apprenticeship Programs with Ford, General Motors, Honda, Toyota and Canadian Tire. In all, it has 80 students studying this year to become truck and bus technicians.

“It’s a splendid example of the industry recognizing a need … and doing something about it,” said Joan Andrew, assistant deputy minister of training at the Ministry of Colleges and Universities. “Training should be a shared responsibility.”

Where 50,000 automotive technicians are expected to be needed in the next five years, the U.S. expects it will need 25,000 coach mechanics by 2005, she added. “I’m not advocating brain drain, but it does present opportunities for Ontario companies.”

Centennial College is already home to Ontario’s largest transportation technology training facility, with more than $30 million in aircraft, vehicles and equipment on hand. n

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