Ever since Volkswagen Group Australia’s managing director, Michael Bartsch, returned from the US two years ago after a long stint in senior executive roles at Porsche and Infiniti, he’s prioritised talking about the state of our car servicing industry.
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At least, he's done so when not dealing with local issues stemming from the nightmare that has been Volkswagen's global diesel recalls, dramas that cost its German and US arms billions and led to significant structural reform and apologising from Wolfsburg.

Bartsch, who’s currently restoring a ‘67 Karmann Ghia, reckons the days of mechanics being ‘grease monkeys’ or ‘spanner spinners’ are dead and buried, that they’ll start to resemble Apple ‘Genuises’ and software experts soon, and that the job needs a subsequent image makeover to attract the right people.

Dirty old workshops and the reputation of low pay won’t cut it, especially with a fleet of EVs coming from 2020.

Two lines that grabbed us:

  1. The work environment has to be aligned and adjusted to the values and thinking of the Y and millennium generations.
  2. I would actually like to see a world where the workshop is the front end of the business and the showroom is the back end. That is the way we need to approach it.

The transcript is below. Sometimes we’d write a feature piece but we think these quotes equate to something of an Op Ed. Tell us your thoughts in the comments.

Q: Ever since you joined VGA, you’ve often spoken about our country’s service culture and your desire for structural change. How’s it all going on that front?

A: Mike, the biggest challenge we have in Australia at the moment is finding skilled technicians, and it’s a really sad indictment on the way that we’ve over-focused on everybody needing to have a uni degree, and not pushed hard enough the merit, value and esteem that comes from really good technical trade qualifications.

And the fact we’re having to constantly import people from overseas is very sad for Australia, we have so many young people here who are looking at where they can have careers.

With a bit of guidance and with the right support — and the guidance has to come from the leaders in business saying a TAFE-type career is as valuable and profitable as going to uni — why go to uni and study something [just for the sake of it], like social studies in the evolution of a green beetle?

We have invested a lot of money and have one of the best training facilities in Australia and training programs, we now for the first time have put our own apprentices on, we’re doing a trial run with three.

We’ve put a huge amount of effort into fast-tracking and upgrading capacity for training master technicians, diagnostic technicians. And I think the degree to which there is a shortage we see because every time we train someone they disappear and go somewhere else.

We just lost two techs out of one of our big Sydney dealerships to Tesla… and with the tech we have in our cars being absolutely cutting edge — we train jointly with Audi — we are a very soft target in terms of pulling talent.

But there’s a bigger problem with the whole culture and message our young ones are getting in what career paths to take. What I can emphatically state is we are heading in the next 10-15 years to the type of people we will need working on cars in terms of diagnostic skills to be no different to the sort of person you need behind the counter of an Apple store.

In terms of their ability to work with software, hardware, their skill sets in diagnosis, it’s the same sort of mentality, and will increase as we start moving towards self-driving and hybrid-electric cars. A lot of thinking and work has to be done to secure that talent stream in the future.

One of the really strong messages I have to the network at the moment is that you have to think about the work environment you’re putting these young ones into. It’s no good anymore to stick them in a greasy workshop that’s just four walls and a hoist, and some lighting and a toolbox.

… You have to have workshops that connect with the past, present and future of the brand, have to have environments that are stimulating… you need a workplace environment that puts you on the consideration list when people turn up to work, and be proud to talk about.

The work environment has to be aligned and adjusted to the values and thinking of the Y and millennium generations.

You want people at the BBQ saying 'I am a Volkswagen tech', and that has to immediately mean something, in the same way as if you're an Apple Genius. People see immediately what that means. There’s a lot of work to create this environment to attract more people.

The FCAI [auto peak body, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries] have been dealing with this at various levels for quite a while and are very vocal about the deterioration in TAFE and so on.

There are a lot of very good third-party providers taking up the mantle on apprentice training, but they can only go so far. They have to go back into the system, so to speak, what I would call the final level of training to deal with the very fast-moving tech coming through at the leading edge brands.

I think the other thing we see coming through, particularly with the trainees, is there is such a sad lack of direction with the young ones coming through, what the expectations will be, the importance that when you walk over the threshold of the business, you are no longer your own brand, you are actually representing the brand of your employer.

There are so many levels we have to address. I think it’s fair to say it’s one of my biggest areas of frustration, and it’s a real cliché. Having been in this business for 30 years, my first boss said ‘you'll always sell the first car out of the showroom, but the second out of the workshop’.

I would actually like to see a world where the workshop is the front end of the business and the showroom is the back end. That is the way we need to approach it.

Q: Volkswagen has not done well in numerous customer satisfaction surveys, though there’s been recent improvement…

A: It’s not enough, I'm not happy, a long way from being happy.

The substance of our products, the tech and design, our pricing, we never have a problem with that. It’s for the aspiring middle class.

Invariably where we have lost ground is in service satisfaction, and that is a direct reflection of a legacy culture that’s the auto industry to a degree, but more than anything it’s being able to get enough good techs to service and work through the cars.

That said, I think the other thing incumbent on us, is we have to make it clear on all levels of the business... we need to make it clear what VW stands for.

In this world that’s fast commoditising you can either fall into the trap of being a commodity, and treating your pricing and servicing accordingly. Or if you don’t fit that, you'd better have a clearly defined brand position, you’d better stand for something.

Because if you don’t, the brand wont reap what you should be entitled to charge based on product substance.