Claire Parkinson enrolled at Lethbridge College to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse. Somewhere, she swapped bed pans for oil pans and is now halfway through her apprenticeship as an automotive technician. She still studies in a technologically advanced field, but now knows more about automatic transmissions than most guys on her block. Sometimes, life presents unique twists.
Parkinson might be a rarity in her profession, a woman with a wrench who can replace a differential as well as the man in the next bay. But, says Sheri Thomson, president of the Lethbridge Auto Dealers’ Association (LADA), she shares one commonality with them all: the automotives industry is hungry for technicians who are properly educated and show a propensity for lifelong learning.
“We need well-trained technicians who can develop and grow with us,” says Thomson, general manager of McFadden Honda. “With ever more complex technology and the fast changes in vehicle design, it’s crucial to keep up with advancements. We want people who will continue to learn; by graduating from automotives at Lethbridge College they are showing us they can embrace change in the industry and keep pace with the demands.”
Honda, for instance, sends employees to its own school in Calgary where they learn about technological developments in its products.
To encourage those with a natural affinity for automotives, LADA visits high schools with its message of post-secondary education. Lethbridge College’s one year Automotive Systems certificate (ASC) program is, she says, a great place to begin; most grads will be able to find work with a dealer in Lethbridge and, with determination and skill, work their way into an apprenticeship program, a four-year commitment in which they continue to work and earn, but attend classes at the college full time for eight weeks each year.
“We want them to see it, smell it and taste it,” says Thomson of the auto industry. “We want to light a fire in them to pursue a career, not just wander into it. We encourage those who show interest to enter the ASC program, while others apply for jobs at the detailer and lube tech levels. Some want to go into sales, but most want to be on the technical side of the business and achieve their journeyman status.”
Most will begin at the bottom (Parkinson started in the lube bay), but once they begin their apprenticeship, their future improves dramatically. To foster education, LADA has poured some $200,000 into Lethbridge College to create an endowment that awards four $1,000 ASC program, and four $1,500 apprenticeship scholarships annually.
Thomson has first-hand experience of the benefits of trades training: her son Justin recently graduated from Lethbridge College’s Wind Turbine Technician program. Three days after graduating, he was hired by TransAlta Utilities to assemble $3-million turbines.
LADA, says Thomson, is acutely aware of its place in the community. Members support numerous charities annually, donating to those in which employees are involved, or generally aiding others.
LADA also holds an annual golf tournament, which has raised more than $110,000 in four years. The
$30,000 raised last August will be split between the Special Olympics and the Lethbridge Association for Community Living.
Automotive dealerships also contribute to the city’s economy through the many supplies and services it requires: tires, glass, fuel, advertising, printing and more.
“We’re pleased that the community feels comfortable in approaching us for support,” says Thomson.
“We’re in a customer-service business, so developing a relationship with the community is important to us. If our customers and the community benefit from our donations, we’ve created a cycle that’s good for everyone.”