Words by John Pinnell, Images by Mt. Gambier TAFE – for Australian Car Mechanic
Mt. Gambier TAFE’s automotive qualifications have taken a turn for the heavy.
The thriving heavy haulage industry around Mt. Gambier has seen a complete switch in the ratio of heavy to light vehicle automotive qualifications at the city’s TAFE, according to Automotive Lecturer Nick Watson.
“The biggest automotive qualification areas we teach,” says 48-year-old Nick, are the Heavy Vehicle On-Road and the Mobile Equipment qualifications, with nearly twice as many as the Light Vehicle qualification. That’s an interesting change because five years ago the numbers were around the other way.”
Heavy haulage in its various forms is a big employment sector, with Mt Gambier supporting both large trucking companies as well as heavy forestry operations in the pine forests, which surround the area.
“We have a lot of logging companies doing harvesting work as well as haulage work,” says Nick. “They are hauling woodchip from the forest to Portland, which is about 100 kilometres away and also some mobile equipment stuff out in the forest, whereas the light vehicle industry has come back a bit. I think that change has come about more for economic reasons than anything else. Most of the bigger car dealers were putting on a couple of apprentices every year, but some haven’t put on an apprentice for a couple of years now.”
Mt Gambier TAFE is one of the better-designed automotive training facilities, with sufficient facilities for all the students and a classroom design with a glass wall between classes and the workshop. On the northern side of the workshop, full length glass doors face north to provide excellent lighting and a bright learning environment.
Mt Gambier’s facilities are currently shared by approximately 75 automotive students across its three streams: Apprenticeship, Pre-apprenticeship and School-based training.
A substantial and varied fleet of workshop vehicles gives the students plenty of variety to work on.
“We do our best to try and keep the workshop vehicle fleet as new as possible,” says Nick. “We are expecting another new vehicle early in this year which is going to come down from Adelaide – a Suzuki donation – and it will top our fleet up with a vehicle which is only a year-old. Currently we’ve got a 2008 Range Rover, a ‘92 MX5 turbo with four-wheel steer and a three cylinder, two-door Daihatsu like everyone else in the TAFE world has got – it’s actually our only carburetted car left in the fleet. There’s a 2012 Suzuki Sierra, a BF Falcon and VF Commodore and an SV21 Camry. That’s our fleet in the light vehicle side and on the heavy vehicle side, we have a one-year old Isuzu truck that was specced up with American air brakes and single axle drive.”
TAFE Mt Gambier has solid links to a very strong local automotive industry group – AGSE, of which Nick is currently the secretary and has been a member since it started almost 10 years ago.
“It’s a very strong industry group of approximately 40 members (companies) and we are all very passionate about getting the right kids into workshops. “We start that program with our school delivery so we interview the kids to go into that program and the main lecturer in that program, Peter Locke, is very involved in that process.”
“Then where they can, the same industry group uses those students for work experience.
“We have some really good employment outcomes from that program.
Mt Gambier TAFE has also seen a few students go on to stretch their wings outside of the traditional pathways of local employment.
“One gentleman who finished his school certificate left and started up an upholstery business with his father who builds hot rods,” says Nick. “We had no-one in Mt Gambier anymore doing interior trim, so he’s just started up his own business, which is going great guns. He was one of the top students who you probably knew from day one was going places.”
“Another young fella, the last winner of our AGSI industry awards program is a young guy working for Cummins South Pacific and he’s been most of the way around the country now filling in at different workshops and spent a lot of time up in Darwin in the last 12 months helping out and doing some big heavy field service work. They’re in that franchise arrangement where they can just swap staff around the country, because they’re all company-owned stores. So he’s doing really well.”
A Mt. Gambier local born and bred, Nick is passionate about the development of young locals and knows perfectly well what brings him to work each day at Mt Gambier TAFE. “ It’s certainly the students, always wanting to keep them engaged in the industry and wanting to pass on all that knowledge that you don’t learn overnight. It really does get back to those basic principles and no matter what you’re teaching them, if they can get a good comprehension of how something actually works they’ll become so much better at working out why it is not working and be able to apply the right fix – as quickly and cheaply as possible for the boss!”
“There’s also a very strong focus on customer relations, particularly when I’m teaching the apprentices. They don’t realise how much of a big part of the job it is, particularly in the light vehicle industry and that’s where I do most of my teaching. When they get to third and fourth year it becomes a really big part of the job, I think it takes a while for them to understand how much of a focus you have on the customer and not just the vehicle.”
“It certainly comes from the time I spent with Toyota, who are very much customer focused company in service and parts and if it didn’t stretch right back to the first-year apprentice that just started, it just didn’t work. Everybody that works there needs to have that same focus as the dealer principal. If everyone along the line has the same focus, it can make a big difference to the outcome of the student.”