Quick Studies: Training New Hires Starts at School

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Solve some hiring headaches—and earn extra credit with your community—with Project Bike Tech’s school program

Words by Mercedes Ross

One of the most consistent, hardest-to-solve problems that bike retailers face is staffing. Finding good, qualified people who’ll work for retail wages, let alone pour themselves into the work and stick around long enough to master it, can be (to put it mildly) a challenge. I know, having worked in the bicycle industry for more than 28 years, during which I’ve assisted countless retailers and vendors to improve their businesses on various levels, including store design, merchandising, product buys, packaging and POP that works. I also owned a two-wheel retail operation (a motorcycle shop, but still…) myself for 15 years, so I know how many hats you all wear, and how HR manager is just one of them.

So what if I told you there’s a way to create a pipeline of trained, reliable young mechanics who will put more value into your service department and make it more profitable, all the while increasing your connection to—and contribution to—your local community? Sound too good to be true? Then you’ve never heard of Project Bike Tech (PBT), the nonprofit I run that places bike mechanic classes into high schools as junior- and senior-year electives. It’s auto shop for bikes, in other words, and today it seems like a no-brainer.

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But when Berri Michel first dreamed it up a decade ago, there was nothing like it. Michel, the co-owner of the Bicycle Trip bike shop in Santa Cruz, California, envisioned an educational program that would train the next generation of bike mechanics. “We envisioned it being similar to how the auto industry spearheaded the creation of high school auto shop programs back in the 1930’s,” Berri says. “So we set out to create new generations passionate and knowledgeable about bikes.”

While the original curriculum was more narrowly focused on mechanics, it soon expanded to include other retail components like sales, POS systems, inventory, merchandising and service writing. All the while, too, students learn career skills—resumé building, interviewing and teamwork—that will serve them for the rest of their lives, whether they pursue a career in cycling or any other field.

Ten years in, Project Bike Tech has taught more than 3,000 students the job skills necessary to be hired as a bicycle mechanic, and is working to provide a path to even more bike industry careers, including engineering, fabrication, marketing, sales and graphic design. It’s the only program of its kind in the country, and it’s an on-ramp for young adults to develop a lifelong engagement with the bicycle lifestyle while learning key academic concepts.

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PBT’s primary program, Bike Tech in School, is an accredited high school elective that meets standards in all 50 states. It uses bike mechanics to teach Common Core and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) concepts. Upon completion of the class, students leave with two certificates: one as an entry-level bike builder (level 1) or mechanic (level 2), which is recognized by the bicycle industry, and one in career tech which is endorsed by Career Technical Education.

Project Bike Tech grads have gone on to jobs at local California bike shops as well as at Santa Cruz bikes, Fox Shox, Ibis Cycles, and Snap-On Tools, among others. There are currently more than 200 students enrolled annually across eight California public schools with a Bike Tech class, and there are more coming to Colorado and Vermont for the 2018-19 school year.

Want to get involved in growing the PBT curriculum nationwide? Starting a program at your local high school will have the biggest impact, of course, and create that pipeline of proficient, employable bike mechanics, in addition to paying dividends in community recognition. But you can also give back to your community by becoming a sponsor or a member of PBT (NBDA members enjoy a reduced rate). Join the movement, and change young lives!

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Mercedes Ross owns Merchandising Werx, a merchandising and retail design company and was recently voted one of the bike industry’s “Top 50 Influential Business Women,” in addition to being the national director at Project Bike Tech. She can be reached by phone at 303-618-6233 or by email at director@projectbiketech.org.