"What's that smell?" A hotel catering manager asked me that question during a hands-on dealer school five years ago. It was time to move our live engines out of the carpeted conference rooms with white table cloths and onto the work benches at technical schools. This collaboration with public technical schools has turned out to be a way to help bring new technicians into the outdoor power equipment field. I would like to share some experiences that might encourage other industry assistance and maybe even have some of you step into the classroom.
I stepped into a tech high school classroom four years ago to do a three-hour, 45-minute 2-Stroke Failure Analysis School. The students had fun helping to prepare to destroy five engines. One group dumped stale fuel mix in one engine, another taped off cooling fins, group three poked toothpicks into holes drilled in the crankcase, the fourth group pulled the air filter so they could squirt in some fine dust, and the last group poured some raw gas into their engine. Students fired up the engines, and we all headed back into the classroom.
Our territory manager stayed outside to baby-sit the engines, up-wind of the engine running on stale fuel mix. The regular instructor stepped out of the classroom and left me with all 22 of his students in the room. Things were going well covering 2-stroke engine theory and failure analysis. We all took a couple of breaks outside to monitor the engines still running. However, toward the end of two hours in the classroom, I started to feel like I had a bull's eye on my forehead with a sign on my chest that said SUBSTITUTE TEACHER. I knew I pushed the seat time for high-school students a little too far when I saw a ball from a computer mouse roll across the floor. I guess that mouse roller down on the floor is better than having a spit wad whiz by your head.
Fortunately, things picked right up when we headed out to the lab. Students had a blast disassembling the engines they helped to destroy. They all could not believe the gooey mess inside the engine that ran on the stale fuel. It helped that the wicked brew came out of a school engine fuel tank. Despite that little slow part in the middle, my first school dedicated to high-school tech students was a fun learning experience for all.
If you think you can dazzle a class of high-school students for half-a-day with your oratory skills, get out of the outdoor power equipment industry now. Head directly to your favorite TV network; Oprah can use some competition. For those of you who haven't left, let me suggest some ways to both entertain and teach with the skills the rest of us do have:
1. HANDS ON, HANDS ON, HANDS ON--Working on equipment is fun. Limit the seat time in the classroom. Attention/discipline problems almost disappear when you keep students busy working on equipment.
2. WORK WITH LIVE EQUIPMENT--If it moves, makes noise, smells ... it holds students attention. If you work on a component like a carburetor, mount it on an engine and run it.
3. CHALLENGE THE STUDENTS--Don't dumb your material down to your perceived idea of their level. I am always amazed how well students do with dealer material.
4. GET EXTRA HELP--One of the few adjustments you'll have to make for student-based hands-on schools is to get extra help in the lab. Keep the regular class instructor in the room. Our assistant service manager and local territory manager also join us.
Not all the schools we work with ask us to teach a full class. A couple of schools reward their top OPE students by having them join our advanced hands-on dealer schools. My concern the first year was what would teenagers have in common with our aging group of dealer techs ... nothing. That's nothing until you lay a piece of equipment down in front of them. They all enjoy troubleshooting, repairing, and finally running the equipment.
When I do dealer schools with students added, I mix them in with our dealer groups. Three years ago, I noticed some of these groups were having fun letting students do much of the hands-on work. Since then, I encourage this interaction at all schools where we have a mix of dealer techs and students. It really was quite interesting watching our dealer techs passing some of their knowledge onto the young students.
I know that not everyone is up to the challenges of stepping into the classroom, but there are other ways to provide meaningful assistance to tech schools. Four school instructors we work with simply want to update their own training by participating in our hands-on dealer schools. At almost every school we do, either a local instructor, program director, or administrator speaks to our dealers. This year, a community college program director recruited and later hired one of our dealer technicians as an evening-school power equipment instructor. Just bringing dealers into the tech school can start the communication with the instructor that gets the ball rolling toward improving their program.
Working with the schools, first involved listening to the instructors' needs. But nothing gets done if you don't work with companies that see the long-term value in helping technical training. Fortunately, I enjoy the enthusiastic support of Eagle Distributing President Scott Hevle. The training, encouragement, generous support of Echo's Product Service Department, and Andrew Kuczmar, Echo's senior director of product training and support, are vital to our assistance to tech schools.
Eagle's assistance to tech schools only started because I was looking for better dealer school sites. It's nice to put on better dealer schools and not having to worry about hotel managers saying, "What's that smell?" It's human nature for us to expect the Equipment & Engine Training Council (EETC) and OPE manufacturers to provide all the assistance to tech schools. That attitude won't put many new needed faces in our industry. I encourage you to step into the classroom, invite students and instructors to your training, and donate tools and equipment to your local technical schools. It is worth it.
Mike Hudson is service manager for Eagle Distributing Inc. in Gilbert, Ariz. Eagle distributes commercial lawn and garden equipment to eight western states. Its lines include Echo, Little Wonder/Mantis, Stag, BlueBird, Yazoo/Kees, Classen and Oregon. Hudson received the EETC's John Thompson Memorial Service Manager of the Year award in April 2005.
Hudson, Mike. "Sweet smell of service school success." Outdoor Power Equipment 48.8 (2005): 10+. Popular Magazines. Web. 29 Oct. 2009.
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