Utah Technician Pioneers Apprentice Program, Wins National NAPA Award
SANDY, Utah – Tearing into a car is a dirty job that can often leave you encased in oil or up to your neck in grease. But Jake Sorensen might just be the cleanest guy you’ll ever find hiding under a hood.
“This is actually what I love,” he said, as he showed off his clean hands while looking at a diagram to see what wires he needed to access inside a clump of Volkswagen cables.
Sorensen said he often stays relatively clean because filters and fluids aren’t his focus.
“We do a lot on computers,” he said. “A lot more than people realize.”
He’s part detective and part forensic scientist, starting by hooking up a diagnostics tablet to the vehicle.
“The codes are more of the direction to go,” Sorensen said. “They’ll point you in the area of the system that has a problem. It doesn’t tell you what the problem is – we have to diagnose that.”
That process is far more complex. He said every manufacturer does things a little differently while talking in detail about determining the engine’s timing as he looked at something resembling an EKG. Sorensen threw out code numbers and specialized slang that sounded like another language – if you want to speak it fluently, proper certification is a must.
“They have eight basic tests,” Sorensen said. “If you take those eight basics, then you’re considered a Master Technician.”
Sorensen started working on dirt bikes as a teenager before graduating to cars. He jokingly said he introduces himself as a “high school dropout” and that college just wasn’t a good fit for him.
Although he did end up getting his high school diploma as an adult, he didn’t have much knowledge about the basic certification tests or what they meant.
“The owner offered me a dollar-an-hour raise for each one of those tests I’d take,” he said.
Not knowing any better, Sorensen took all eight at the same time.
“He said there were eight tests, so I took eight tests,” he said with a laugh. “I was naive, luckily for me. I didn’t know any better.”
Sorensen never got his $8 raise — he was told they thought he’d just take one or two at a time. Fortunately, he was able to land another job with better pay. People with his certifications were in high demand and that demand has only gotten stronger.
Believe it or not, Sorensen said Master Technicians can make more than many college graduates.
“There absolutely are technicians out there that can make six figures with the right experience and the right education,” said Pete McNeil of McNeil’s Auto Care, where Sorensen works. “There’s definitely a misunderstanding of where that ceiling is at and, unfortunately, I think it’s limited the amount of people that want to get into the industry.”
McNeil and Sorensen both shared the same frustrations about the number of qualified technicians they’d come across.
“We’d put out an ad and we’d only have a few applicants,” Sorensen said. “Most of the applicants just weren’t qualified. So we realized we have to do something here. We can’t just keep waiting for a solution to come from somebody else.”
Sorensen said many of those looking to get into the industry face a problem: going to a trade school can result in large student loan debts and technicians need to buy their own tools before they can land a job.
He decided the solution was right under their noses and helped McNeil come up with a plan. Sorensen now oversees apprentices through a program that lets employees earn a paycheck and their certifications at the same time. Now, not only is he helping fellow employees, but he’s also teaching students from Entrada High School as part of their Auto Tech Pre-apprentice Program.
“We encourage learning,” McNeil said. “We know it’s a big part of the industry. The guys here, if they take the tests, they obviously get a pay increase for learning and doing the things they should.”
Once the apprentice program in their shop got rolling, McNeil called a meeting.
“It was kind of weird, he was trying to make sure everybody was here,” Sorensen said.
They were waiting on a phone call from NAPA’s corporate office, who was calling to announce that Sorensen was the “NAPA ASE Technician of the Year.” Out of 17,000 NAPA locations, Sorensen was the winner, thanks in part to his apprentice program.
NAPA’s now taking the apprentice program nationwide and has looked to Sorensen to help them scale it.
“I was in Arizona with them, and I asked them if they’ve had very many people sign up,” he said. “I was hoping to hear 20 or so, but they said they had 103.”
NAPA’s isn’t the only national award Sorensen’s received — he also took home the “All-Star” award for “Shop Worker of the Year” from Ratchet+Wrench magazine.
But despite all his accolades, Sorensen’s focused on two things: showing people they don’t necessarily need a college degree to build a career and helping others build those careers can be an award unto itself.
“There’s people that want to get into this industry, they just have no idea how to do it,” he said.
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