I've been thinking about penning (if that's appropriate to something that will appear in digital media) this piece for a while.
I've avoided doing so for a number of reasons - one, I don't like presenting a problem without at least having some kind of solution up my sleeve, two, I didn't want to give others an idea that I have been dwelling on for a very long time, three, I don't like going off half-cocked at anything I take on, I prefer to have a complete plan in my head of where I am going and how I am going to get there.
However, some circumstances have changed and with the gathering pace in the transformation of retail and looking at the ever-increasing volume of mail in my inbox on technical matters, now seems like a good time to talk about a wider view of technical training in the UK and wider markets.
I'd like to start with the premise that in the cycle industry at present, we are selling an increasingly complex technical product to a customer base with a decreasing appreciation of what they are buying.
Electronic shifting, hydraulic disc brakes, fully integrated handlebar and stem systems, more complex suspension systems and e-bike (which may also incorporate some, or all, of the above) have all made the technical landscape in recent years more complex.
At the same time, we have seen the rise and rise of both remote selling and of D2C retail models from manufacturer / assemblers.
As this has gone on, we have also seen an increasingly active market amongst what might be described as technically unskilled consumers, as distinct from more technically capable and interested hobbyists, which was more of the picture 20 years ago - there's been an exponential rise in the number of individuals who are buying a product that they themselves, for a variety of reasons, don't service or maintain themselves.
As these changes have taken place, bricks and mortar retail has come under increasing pressure on price and an early casualty of price pressure can be service and / or the quality of technicians that look at customer bikes.
What I believe is now needed, is an industry-driven Association dedicated to improving the quality and knowledge base of shop and independent technicians in a transparent way, whereby those wishing to enter that sector of the industry can see a career path and progression, whilst final customers can see and draw a distinction between recent entrants into that sector, recent entrants with a level of basic training (or who are engaged in training) and more experienced entrants, again with a proven level of ongoing technical training and crucially, proof of competence.
In the UK there are several training organisations, all of whom work on a broadly similar model - three levels of technical competence, from the entry at Level 1 to the (currently) most advanced at Level 3. The levels fall broadly within the structure defined by the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) and an accreditation at each level can, in all cases, be attained via a series of short intensive courses, with varying levels of proof of competence at the end of each course.
The problem with this, is that it grossly underestimates the value of experience. In the industry, all of us on the technical side understand that the pieces of paper will only take you so far and that experience plus knowledge is the formula that creates the best results - but it's all too easy for a consumer (or an employer) to be seduced by a long list of course achievements, with no reference made to experience "on the tools".
As a training provider, we've had huge numbers of conversations with employers disillusioned with new employees with all the certifications under the sun but only very limited workshop time, as well as with final customers who are starting to see certifications as a kind of whitewash devised by clever marketeers, to lure them into spending their hard-earned cash with a shop that may and may not still have the technicians with the certifications that it claims, who may and may not be the people who actually do the job on their bike.
An industry-driven Association for professional cycle mechanics / technicians with proven accreditations and proven time-served in the workshop is one element of the solution to this hoary old problem. The other is to publicise where those technicians are working so that final customers can say that they want technician "x" to work on their bike - and to track their employment so that if a tech moves from one shop to another, the tech themselves inform the Association.
The techs themselves, I believe, need to invest in at least some of the technical education that underpins their membership. The Association could work on a subscription model, such that the annual subscription, paid by the technician, not the employer, provides not only the listing or directory but also pays for one or two days of CPD a year ... then, continuous employment and the acquisition of training / assessment credits builds to produce a career pathway for the tech - a move, if you will, from apprentice, to journeyman to master technician.
Of course, many employers will by now be shouting at the screen, saying "that gives my mechanic too much power, they can leverage that into salary or benefits!" Well - yes, it does. Is that such a bad thing, though?. If employers want to retain technicians, they will have to pay them commensurate with their skills and what they bring to the business - but, dear employer, if you were a technician with 20 years of hard-won experience with a brace of demanding accreditations to your name, would you not be asking for just that same recognition?
The final piece of the jigsaw is manufacturer buy-in. I've spoken to probably 30 manufacturers in the last few months and outlined a proposition, where they might access, at training centres around the UK already set up for teaching cycle mechanics, techs who are genuinely thirsty for knowledge - whether those manufacturers choose to cascade their courses down through established trainers such as ourselves, or just utilise the facilities we are able to provide and deliver the training themselves. I have heard not a single voice of dissent.
It seems to me that we are in a situation as an industry, where vast damage can be done to the reputation of brands all too easily - and one element of that is poor assembly and set up of bikes and or components.
If we can build an Association that addresses this, along with improving customer service in the round, gives technicians a meaningful career progression that is externally visible and that is properly rewarded, it seems to me that it's something that we should be doing.
Yes, there may be some dispute, some infighting amongst the vendors or purveyors of technical training - we are all competitors, after all. Some are large and have great financial resource, some are smaller and have more limited resources (but may have deep specialist knowledge that is missing from the larger generalists) but three things strike me:
First is that there is more demand for training than there has ever been and the market is bigger than all of the providers collectively can service.
Second is that if we work together, we don't need to lose our individual identities but we can maximise our worth to the industry that provides us with our customers.
Third, some level of cross-fertilisation will undoubtedly come about , meaning that all providers will improve from the propogation of best practice, which will be to the general benefit of the candidates, their customers and the credibility of the Professional Bicycle Mechanic in the market ... which has to be good for all concerned, from manufacturers all the way through to final customers.
So - is it time?