A visit to the 2011 Dealer Technician Skills Competition.
GM adds competitive edge to employee relations
It's fairly safe to say that most medium to large-scale corporate organisations have some form of training scheme for employees these days.
And it's natural that employers want their staff to have the level of skills they need to perform to the highest possible standards in their roles within the company. It's also not unreasonable to suggest that it's mutually beneficial for an employee to progress through the ranks of an organisation.
So in-house training sessions, with a computer whiz or sales maestro delivering talks, are offered, or staff are sent to training camps, lectures and conferences to network and learn more about their craft. Some more recession-proof employers may even send staff on fact-finding missions overseas, if they're lucky.
But few opt for the method adopted by General Motors Middle East Operations when trying to equip their staff with the mental tools required to do the job.
A trip to the Dubai Autodrome on an otherwise innocuous Tuesday morning last week made me realise that the competition GM was putting on for its technicians was both novel and hugely profitable for the company. Not profitable in a monetary sense necessarily, but certainly in the way that it aids employee well-being and development.
On arrival I was greeted in the paddock area of the race track with a massive banner stating: "Welcome 2 Dealer Technician Skills Competition 2011".
Inside three of the bays, men in black polo shirts were studiously going about locating, diagnosing and repairing problems on GMC, Chevrolet and Cadillac cars while men in white polo shirts were standing over them, watching every move and checking boxes on a form. Meanwhile, men in blue polo shirts were walking around taking in the overall picture of what's happening.
This competition was GM's way of giving the forgotten men of the company - the technicians - their 15 minutes of fame.
"These guys are the ones out back quietly going about their business, repairing, making things work again," said Manny D Suriel, GM's regional services manager in the Middle East. "They don't usually get much praise for what they do so this is their time to be in the spotlight."
And in the spotlight they certainly were. Banners bearing each of the 36 finalists' images are draped everywhere, along with the tagline, "Fix-it-right-first-time Heroes - No sacrifice, no victory!"
The preparation and organisation that was put into the two-day finals event was quite impressive. But when you consider that GM Middle East invests US$10 million in technical and customer care training annually, you realise how seriously the company takes training and retaining the best staff.
More than 3,000 technicians from around the region entered the competition by first answering questions online. The top 50 per cent were then set a written examination and, from that group, 36 were selected to appear in the finals in Dubai. They arrived from seven countries and were made up of five nationalities; many had developed at GM's purpose-built training academy in the Philippines before going on to be stationed in cities such as Riyadh, Jeddah, Muscat and, of course, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
They were in the black tops, while a total of 56 white-topped judges looked on. The blue shirts were eager GM Academy students trying to learn as much as they can.
"Preparation for the whole competition took three months starting from February," said Harrie van der Schoot, GM's regional training manager. "These guys have all worked hard to get here and they are all very eager to win."
Over the two days the technicians had to visit 12 stations in the paddocks, covering every detail of fixing a variety of cars that come under the GM banner, such as Chevrolet Camaros and GMC Yukons. And the stakes were high, too.
Sponsors provided prizes such as a Dh18,367 gold bar and an Apple iPhone 4 for the winner and trophies for the top five technicians; one sponsor even offered Dh23,877 worth of diagnostics technology to the winning technician's dealership. There was also a prizegiving dinner for all involved in the finals, where the competitors donned their glad rags and played the part of A-lister for the night.
And Noel Pangan, of Universal Motors Agencies Dealership in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, must have felt like a Hollywood superstar: he was crowned the overall winner of the competition.
It's apparent that GM sees the internal benefits of running such a competition but, said Luay Al Shurafa, the firm's regional customer service director, the customer also reaps the rewards. "Since we started this competition three years ago, we've had a 30 per cent improvement in customer feedback," he said. "And at GM we have a fix-it-right-first-time policy that is benefiting from a competition like this - we've had a 12 per cent improvement in first-time fixes this year alone."
For GM, at least, it seems that the unsung heroes finally have something to sing about.