As the auto repair industry population ages, finding talented young people to take over the reins as owners look ahead to retirement is an increasingly pressing issue. Steve Sandham of George’s Auto Repair in Tillsonburg, Ontario, is a great example of how putting faith in a smart youngster can turn into a real success story down the road.
Steve first arrived at George’s through his high-school co-op program. But George Stuyt, who runs the shop with wife Annette, soon discovered he not only already knew a thing or two, but was smart and willing to work hard.
“I was always brought up around cars and auto repair,” Steve recalls. “My grandfather was a mechanic, and my dad loved working on cars. I remember as a very little kid having a electric toy boat and it broke, and I still remember being amazed when my granddad worked on it for a while and got it going again!”
His dad used to fix up old muscle cars in his spare time, until Steve’s mum put her foot down. “She said he was spending too much time on his cars when there was other stuff to do around the house, so the last car he worked on, a ’76 Dodge Dart Sport, just sat in our garage for a few years. Then when I was a teenager, I decided to try and get it going again.
“I studied automotive in high school, but by then I had a lot of understanding from working on cars after school. Then, after grade 12 I did a co-op program at George’s shop, and George and I really hit it off.”
Steve was accepted into the Accelerated Motive Power Program at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario, and before he entered the program, George offered to take him on as an apprentice once he graduated. “The day after I graduated in 2009, I went back to George’s shop. He took one look at me and said, when can you start?” Long story short: Steve, who today is 30 and expecting his first child with wife Brittany in July, is now part-owner, and being groomed to take over when George and Annette retire a few years down the road.
He acknowledges that the intensive Accelerated Motive Power Program was designed as a way to bypass traditional apprenticeship programs and awards successful students with certification upon graduation, but he still recommends the apprenticeship process. “I am a total advocate of apprenticeship programs; the trick is finding a student who’s willing to put in the effort – nothing is free these days, but hard work is worth it.
“We have an apprentice here today who goes to school one day a week. It’s hard work both physically and mentally, and if you are away for three months in a [full-time] program, it’s easy for the body to lose conditioning.” But also, he adds, the trade is ever-evolving, and it’s crucial to work on actual customer cars and participate in ongoing industry training in order to stay current.
What advice would he give owners who are open to the idea of hiring a young person, perhaps with a view to leaving their business in trusted hands when they do retire? “Honestly, if you want to retire one day you should start early. It takes time to invest in someone and bring them along. But it’s really about casting a line: enrol in co-op programs with high schools, or find out about employment programs or youth employment agencies in your area.”
In turn, what would he say to younger versions of himself who are interested in fixing cars but unsure where to start, or even if the job is for them? “You might think about going to a shop and asking if you can work free for a day or two, or even just watch. That would be a great way for a student to find out if they’re suited to the job. Also, this trade actually involves a lot of different subtrades within it: HVAC, electrical, to name a few.” Even if you find that automotive isn’t really for you, it may lead to a career in electrical engineering or some other related field.
Meanwhile, Steve is dedicated to keep up the legacy that George and Annette Stuyt have built: good honest work that customers can trust.
“There’s something to be said for hard work and honesty,” he says simply. “If I wouldn’t let my wife drive a car after I’ve finished working on it, I won’t let it out of the shop. I’m pretty fussy, actually.”