high-school-robotics-programs-could-be-a-service-tech-pipeline

Patrick Sassine, service adviser at Vic Canever Chevrolet in Fenton, Mich., northwest of Detroit, looks at the store’s aging technician work force and worries.

“Our work force is 50-plus” years old, he told Fixed Ops Journal. “They are at the end of their careers, and we don’t see anything coming in, no young talent. You can find people to do brakes and to do oil changes but not to work on computer modules.”

To run the service department in the era of battery-electric vehicles and self-driving technology, “you have to have the skills,” he says.

Currently, Canever has just one tech certified to work on the Chevrolet Volt and Bolt, and the store could use more.

But Sassine knows about a potential pipeline for techs with advanced electronics skills that may not have dawned on other service directors.

We’ve heard stories of dealers who have scooped up tech-savvy employees from retail stores’ electronics departments, or who have “grown their own” by starting them in the lube lane fresh out of high school and moving them up. Those are good strategies — for today. But here’s one for the near future: Nearly every school district in the nation has at least one high school with a FIRST Robotics team. FIRST — For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology — is the perfect program for new-car dealers to support and use as a recruiting tool.

Each year, FIRST school teams around the country build battery-powered, self-driving robots that compete in raucous competitions held in gyms and arenas in front of cheering parents, students and sponsors. The robots must perform complex tasks, such as climbing a wall or shooting balls repeatedly through a hoop. Each FIRST team has engineers, computer programmers, welders, electricians, fabricators and troubleshooters.

Sassine has seen firsthand what these kids — including his son — can do: He’s a mentor for the Fenton Titanium Tigers. And Canever is a sponsor.

Because of the pandemic, the 2020 team didn’t visit the dealership as in years past. As soon as it is safe again, the Titanium Tigers will visit Canever and the service department, Sassine says. He wants to plant the seed that a car dealership is a place where technicians can work on cutting-edge electronics.

Engineer Todd Ferguson, a global program manager for automotive at Tier 1 supplier Borg Warner, is familiar with some of the electronic components that high school teams are installing on their robots. He’s seen the same parts on production vehicles.

“The proximity sensors and the ultrasonic sensors are all the same,” he says. Ferguson moonlights as a FIRST mentor and coach for the Fenton school district.

It costs between $2,000 and $5,000 to sponsor a FIRST team — less than a rounding error in most stores’ annual advertising budgets. Sponsors usually provide supplies, tools and advice — and sometimes mentors. The sponsor’s logo is often placed on the robot, and it’s used during the team’s promotional activities. Trust me when I tell you that that exposure alone makes it worth it.

The teams are out in their communities year-round raising money to buy the supplies to build their robots. And they love to brag about their sponsors.

Since not all kids in FIRST go to college, sponsoring a team can open your service drive doors to those who want to start their careers right after high school. They’ll come to work with a solid grounding in many of the skills needed to work on tomorrow’s vehicles, and a thirst to learn more.

“Working with these kids has been unbelievable,” Ferguson says. “These kids’ minds are like sponges. They’re looking for root cause of failure. It’s really about root cause analysis, and that’s what techs do for a living. A car comes in and it’s bucking, well you have to go through the value tree.”

Chances are your store is already working with local vocational schools. But, knowing what automakers have coming, I say you should also take a look at getting involved with your local FIRST team. When live events resume, go to a competition. You’ll see a bigger pool of potential techs interested in electronics in one place than you can imagine.