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Automotive Technician grad helps fuel industry influx at Mercedes-Benz

September 17, 2015

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Joe Clark spent his teenage years on the soccer pitch — not whiling away the hours in his parents’ garage, pulling wrenches to restore an old car to its former glory.

It’s not the usual backstory you’d expect from a guy who now works as a technician for Mercedes-Benz Winnipeg (MBW), where Teutonic dream machines with price tags north of six figures aren’t uncommon.

Reflecting on his path to MBW, which began with Red River College’s Automotive Technician Certificate program, Clark himself tends to agree.

“When I started, I was about as green as you could get,” says Clark, 22, who used the certificate program as the Level 1 equivalent in his four-year apprenticeship training.

“[Auto tech.] was just a really applicable skill that I was curious about. It just so happened to work out for me. I was pretty lucky.”

But it took more than good fortune to transform Clark from a neophyte mechanic to a full-time member of the tech team at one of the city’s newest and most state-of-the-art auto shops.

For that, he credits his instructors at RRC and the program they’ve developed — a mix of theory and hands-on learning in local shops — which he says gives students the skills they need, whether they work on one brand of vehicle, as he does, or a variety.

“They focus on the principles, the basics,” says Clark, who’s currently completing Level 3 of his apprenticeship training at RRC. “That’s the important stuff.”

And it appears to be working. In a recent chat with one of his instructors, Clark learned that the graduation rate for the RRC program is in the upper 90th percentile, where other Canadian colleges hover around the 80s.

Still, he admits there’s a low percentage of people who carry on, as he did, after completing their Level 1 training. Tuition, the prohibitive cost of tools (Clark has already invested more than $8,000 in his) and an enduring stigma that technicians are “wrench monkeys” are all factors.

The net result is a dearth of skilled technicians in the local and national automobile sector and, in Clark’s view, a missed opportunity to be part of an exciting career.

“I find it really rewarding to solve a problem and help people out,” he says. “For the most part, when it comes to vehicles, people have no idea. I was once in that boat.”

Recently, MBW took measures to remove some of the barriers preventing would-be auto technicians from pursuing their career dreams. Through a $15,000 gift, matched by the Manitoba Scholarship and Bursary Initiative, they created the Mercedes-Benz Winnipeg Technician Excellence Award at RRC.

To be eligible for the scholarship — which provides at least $1,000 each year for tuition or tools — students must have solid grades, display leadership and teamwork in the classroom, and conduct themselves in a professional manner during their work placements.

Still, Clark cautions, it’s not a career path for just anyone.

“It takes a certain type of person to make this work,” says Clark. “You have to thrive under pressure. When you’re working on a customer’s car and they need it back same day, it has to be done. That extra push motivates me.”

Earlier this year, Clark learned from his colleagues at MBW that he’s the right person for the job when they nominated him for a good co-worker award. His prize? Getting to take home the car of his choice for the weekend.

Clark opted for the C63 AMG coupe: a 500-plus horsepower beast that stickers for around $80,000.

“That was pretty fun,” he admits.

Learn more about RRC’s Automotive Technician Certificate and Diploma programs.