Nearly 200,000 U.S. veterans look for jobs every year after exiting the military and only one in four has a job lined up before leaving the armed forces, according to Pew Research. Retired Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Watters was one of the four thanks to GM’s Shifting Gears Automotive Technical Training Program.
The 12-week program is the result of a partnership between the U.S. Army, GM, and Vertex. Veterans train at Fort Hood to turn their military service skills into civilian careers as automotive technicians at GM dealerships.
Shifting Gears launched in 2014 and has since graduated 705 former soldiers, including Watters in 2016. He received his World Class Certification in September, which is the highest level of training a GM tech can achieve. The program was awarded the 2022 Torch Employer of the Year by Workforce Solutions of Central Texas.
Watters served 21 years in the U.S. Army as a light-wheel mechanic. He told Repairer Driven News he found Shifting Gears when he was researching jobs he could work after his military service ended.
“It was a great introduction to today’s vehicles compared to what I was used to working on before I joined the military, so it kind of brought me up to speed on where we were at,” Watters said. “That way when I got to my dealership, I just hit the ground with both feet running. I already had mechanical knowledge. This just prepared me to be able to come into these vehicles and take that next step and get that hands-on [knowledge] going into it and knowing what I’m doing with them.
“I didn’t have to worry as much as I see veterans coming in that didn’t go through this program trying to get into this [work] struggling because they don’t know what they’re getting into. They just say, ‘Oh, I wanna be a mechanic today.’ They step into this world and they’re just struggling because they don’t have the background, the training.”
Shifting Gears and his job with Classic Chevrolet in Lawton, Oklahoma helped filled in electrical, troubleshooting, and diagnostics gaps between how military Humvees and trucks differ from personal vehicles, Watters said. Classic Chevrolet Service Manager Damion Wagner, who is also an Army veteran, told GM the shop currently employs seven veterans in their service department, including Watters, and they want to hire more techs from the Shifting Gears program because of the skills the military veteran program graduates bring to the workplace.
Watters said his mission is to take care of his customers no matter what because they depend on auto techs like him to make sure they have their vehicles.
“You’ve got way more lines [makes and models] to walk into,” Watters said. “I mean, you not only have GM, but we do all kinds of work; on Fords, Jaguars…Acuras, Hondas, Nissan. It doesn’t matter what it is. We do everything through our service department and GM opened that door for me to be able to get into it and have a better understanding of my electrical through their electrical boot camp. …You’ve got way more electrical to deal with, and in today’s world, that electrical is what’s killing everybody, in my opinion. They step into it and they’re not ready for it. They need to go and get their training taken care of to help walk into it and just be ready to take that next step and get into the electrical.”
When RDN asked Watters what tips he would give current military personnel looking for a job he said investigate the transition programs offered through the armed forces.
“Don’t just settle with what’s at your current station. Look at other stations,” he said. “There is ways around it, ways to go through and be able to get into that training. You can get temporarily assigned for that training and then return back your duty assignment that you’re currently at to exit the military. That training will help. They just have to take it seriously. Don’t be afraid to go after it.”
And don’t wait to try and get training until after exiting the military, Watters added. “A lot of times you can’t get in these programs [after] because they’re strictly for military. These exit programs are for the military, to help you transition. It’s up to that soldier to take the step and take the initiative to push for it. I highly encourage doing those programs.”
The program is free to active service members. GM touts Shifting Gears as building the talent pipeline amid the ongoing automotive technician shortage. TechForce Foundation found in its most recent study that 232,000 techs were needed in 2021 across automotive, diesel, and collision but schools were graduating only 42,000. In collision alone, the demand was 35,000 techs while only 4,500 graduated.
Demand for collision techs this year is 35,239 compared to 18,496 projected in 2021. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics replacement rate for collision technicians rose slightly from 9.1% in 2020 to 9.5% in 2021.
For more information about Shifting Gears and to sign up for the program, visit www.gmstc.com/index.php/shifting-gears.
Featured image: Retired Sgt. 1st Class Chris Watters and his wife, Rainy Watters. (Credit: Chris Watters/GM)
A military veteran trains in the Shifting Gears program to become an automotive technician. (Credit: GM)