The Unobvious Ones is a monthly look at movers and shakers who fly below the radar in the Canadian auto industry.
EDUCATOR’S CHALLENGE? MESH SCHOOLS WITH INDUSTRY TRAINING
A steady supply of automotive technicians can be challenging as new vehicles rapidly evolve with electrification. On the cusp of dealing with skilled-labour shortages is Jeff Oakes, chair of trades and apprenticeship at Conestoga College in Guelph, Ont.
“We’re the largest apprenticeship trainer in Ontario and we’re at capacity for students, but the average age of an auto tech is 47, and more people are exiting the trade than being replenished from the schools,” he said. “We’re constantly getting phone calls from employers saying, ‘Do you have anybody for us?’”
Oakes, 50, attended Conestoga to become a licenced automotive technician, and apprenticed at a two-bay independent garage. He mostly saw older cars there and moved to a General Motors dealership in 1998 to learn about newer technologies.
A former teacher suggested he try teaching at the college, which hired him as an instructor in 2002.
“Our school got the summers off, and I made a deal with the dealership to work there during the summer to get training on the newer vehicles. I did that every summer for 10 years.”
He became coordinator of the automotive program in 2014. Five years later he became the trades chair, overseeing repair programs for automotive, motorcycle, bus and coach, and heavy-duty equipment, plus heavy construction operator. He also has helped rewrite the province’s curriculum, which sets the standard taught by schools to apprentices.
Oakes is in charge of hiring staff, reaching out to high schools to recruit students and updating courses for new technologies.
“Auto companies have been fantastic about donations, but keeping our fleet current isn’t cheap and we need what’s new to keep students up to date.”
PULLING WHAT’S BEHIND HELPS GM PULL AHEAD
It’s not that often people can turn their hobbies into careers, but Ralph Schlottke did just that. An avid outdoorsman who tows boats and snowmobiles, Schlottke heads up trailering technology at General Motors in Oshawa, Ont.
“We realized a number of years ago that the battle for trucks isn’t won by how shiny your paint is, but what we can do for customers. I’ve been towing for 40 years and there are a lot of things we can make better for customers when they tow.”
Schlottke virtually meets weekly with engineers worldwide to manage the development and rollout of trailer technologies, including those that work with GM’s semiautonomous Super Cruise system that allows limited hands-free driving.
“A lot of the [electronic] vision systems are done in Israel, some vehicle dynamics are done in Michigan and now that we have [a test facility] in Oshawa we can do our testing here.”
Schlottke, 56, studied electrical engineering at the University of Waterloo in Kitchener, 120 kilometres west of Toronto, and then worked for Transport Canada installing communications systems and radar at airports across Ontario. His love of cars led him to designing electronic systems for auto supplier Magna International. He joined GM in 2000, working first on compressed-natural-gas (CNG) vehicles and then on vehicle electrical architecture. He eventually moved into advanced safety technologies.
“People were coming to me with questions about trailering because I tow so much and it created my role. I have a counterpart in the U.S. who takes our technology and prepares it for production. There’s a need for trailer safety and there are a lot of things we can do for the customer.
“We always want our features to be better.”