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Often lessons learned working at a shop are life lessons. These are the lessons that work on cars and people. Some of these lessons take days or even years to comprehend fully.
My education was not the traditional path to becoming either a technician or magazine editor. While attending college, I would work at independent shops and dealerships. I did it because these jobs typically paid more than the typical retail or food service jobs. Plus, I like working on and around cars. I worked my way from porter to technician (with the help of my dad’s toolbox).
I wanted to work at this one shop because it specialized in German and European cars. From the outside, his bays were filled with Porsches, Mercedes and BMWs. This was Detroit in the early 1990s. Foreign cars were exotic and rare where almost everybody worked for GM, Ford or Chrysler.
The owner made me a meager offer, but it seemed like an opportunity to learn. He was a German immigrant and had built a respectable business. If you were a customer, you thought he was the nicest man alive. But the second he crossed the threshold between the front office and the shop, he became a different man. He was not cruel, but he was stern and fair.
He was the type of shop owner who even managed to find a uniform service with pants that had buttons on the side to avoid scratching the fenders of his customer’s cars.
For new hires, he had a couple of tests that would determine their fate. For prima donnas, the tests would seem beneath them. These tasks had a lesson, but you had to step back or wait a long time to get the point.
The first test was cleaning the bathroom. The handwashing area and bathroom were used by five technicians and a dozen parts delivery drivers. If you refused the job or just did the minimum, it was a sign you probably would not do your best if the car was a crusty old Volvo 240 instead of a shiny Porsche 911.
The second test was cleaning the windows on his Audi 5000. He was a heavy smoker, on his hour-long commute, he would smoke half a pack of cigarettes. The insides of the windows were covered with a transparent layer of nicotine tar.
He would give you yesterday’s edition of the Detroit News and a bottle of the cheapest blue window cleaner. He expected the glass to be clear and free of any streaks or missed areas near the edges of the glass.
Anybody could quickly clean the windows so they passed inspection at quitting time. But, if it was a cold morning and condensation fogged the inside of the windshield, all of your shortcuts would be revealed.
He would look at the windshield the entire hour-long commute in the morning, cursing your name and smoking like a chimney. It took me two tries to get it right.
The point of these tests was not to be a sadistic hazing ritual. They were intended to reveal how a person treated the worst jobs and the smallest details. This would often determine how they would perform on the biggest jobs with the most significant details.
It took me a while to realize what he was teaching me. These lessons carried over to my other jobs and career. It made me realize that no matter the job, it’s really your reputation or brand on the line.