Dealerships ‘farm’ for service technicians

dealerships farm for service technicians

When Shawn Vaughan took the reins at Mike Calvert Toyota in Houston, one of his first orders of business was to implement a hiring model he had developed previously that works contrary to the usual practice of luring technicians from competing dealerships with higher pay.

“In order to recruit technicians, the industry subscribes to a mercenary concept,” Vaughan said. “We steal each other’s technicians and pay up to move them from one dealer to another.”

Vaughan, who is now CEO of Vaughan Automotive in Boerne, Texas, developed a recruiting method he says is more akin to farming.

He brings in candidates from local high schools, trade schools or associate degree schools and puts them through a rigorous 100-hour internship program that, if completed successfully, results in a full scholarship to Toyota’s Technician Training and Education Network, or T-TEN.

“We take the long-term approach to growing technicians that will grow into parts counter associates, service advisers or middle management,” he said. “When you get into stealing other dealers’ technicians, it creates a super negative environment in the market that does have a ripple effect.”

He developed the method in 2012 when he became general manger of Vic Vaughan Toyota of Boerne, situated about 30 miles northwest of San Antonio.

Vaughan already was working with the school districts in Boerne and nearby Fredericksburg, Texas, on tech accreditations when he thought to tap into the student body for what would ultimately become an internship program for the dealership.

It started as more of an apprenticeship, Vaughan said. The first candidate was Stone Bennett. He received mentoring in different disciplines of the fixed operations business. Upon completion, Vaughan paid for him to attend the two-year T-TEN program in Waco, Texas.

Farming for talent required a big grassroots commitment from Vaughan and his team.

“We want to develop the relationship with school districts, and they’re looking for programs that can widen the horizon of their students and give them a broader perspective on automotive,” Vaughan said. He noted that students who are more interested in an advisory role can bypass T-TEN and opt into a six-month course called Vaughan Automotive Individual Development Program.

Vaughan says his “grow from within” method yields multiprong results: It builds company loyalty, fosters camaraderie among team members and, perhaps most immediately, helps control labor costs and reduces turnover. It moves away from the industrywide situation of technicians in one dealership working for disparate wages — which Vaughn refers to as a “Frankenstein” pay scale.

“It’s where you’ve promised all these different techs of different walks of life different pay plans, and you’re praying that they don’t share their pay plans with each other,” he said.

“As a business owner, you have to try to put the right job with the right tech and manage that average cost of labor,” Vaughan said. “You have to have a good balance of lower-level technicians, mid-level technicians and master-level technicians.

“In 10 years, you look up, and 65 percent of your technicians are still with you.”

Mike Calvert Toyota is the second dealership in the Vaughan Automotive portfolio. Vaughan came on board at Mike Calvert as an executive manager in late 2018 and worked for two years to improve the store before it was officially folded into the group in January 2021.

The two dealerships together sold 13,578 new and used vehicles combined from May 2021 to April 2022.

The Houston store has 48 service bays. But when he took over, it had only 12 service technicians on payroll. He implemented the curriculum opportunity immediately, reaching out to Houston-area public schools, which were eager to participate. He also connected with the Houston tech college Universal Technical Institute and with Houston Community College, among others.

Vaughan said he was able to level-set pay and control labor costs, which helped the dealership go from “barely profitable to wildly profitable.”

Today, there are 56 service technicians at Mike Calvert Toyota and seven interns at any given time.

Vaughan also discovered another benefit to the hiring approach: It helped the store adopt more modern practices.

While updating the service center, he added a video multipoint inspection process for customers, which he said brings a new layer of credibility to the guest experience.

But not all the veteran techs were in favor of that change.

“When you have a bunch of guys that have done it one way and you say, ‘Starting tomorrow, I’m going to give you a camera and you’re going to do video multipoint inspections,’ they look at you like a horn is coming out of your forehead,” Vaughan said.

But techs that came through his program showed enthusiasm about the changes, and that in itself proved to be a motivator for the more tenured team members.

“The older guys see the young guys doing it,” Vaughan said, “and all of a sudden, they are running more hours.”


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