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James Stanfill: The Path To Being A Professional

Published July 26, 2019

By James Stanfill

Editor's note: James Stanfill is the president of the Professional Bicycle Mechanics Association and the founder of A Better Bike Biz.

I hear a lot of feedback about what a professional bicycle mechanic is. I wrote about it on this very site (you can read that here). Even some mechanics will argue about what makes a mechanic a professional or what qualifies them to become certified.

Let’s start with a common coming-of-age story for the yet-to-be professional mechanic. At a young age, this person falls in love with the bicycle (perhaps they might even decide to start racing)… yet at some point in those early years, they realize that bicycles are expensive, and fixing them can be costly. 

The mechanic gets the idea to go work in a bicycle shop. They go and apply or talk to the owner or beg for a job. The mechanic catches a break. The shop needs a “shop rat.”

What an ugly term “shop rat”… a term that many professional mechanics probably use (to talk about their own shop rat) and probably were at some point ironically named such when they started in this amazing business. As the shop rat, the mechanic swept the floor, managed the cardboard and trash with diligence, maybe even cleaned the bathrooms, and, if lucky, they got to change a tire or tube on occasion.

This upbringing of sorts makes the mechanic hard, teaches them the value of a job well done… an untidy pile of broken-down bike boxes is a real mess, but many of us probably took pride in being able to stack that pile real high and real straight.

These menial tasks created the foundation for consistency and pride of work ethic, even though none of those things mentioned are all that rewarding (maybe for the weird ones, but not for most). These tasks were part of a path to something the shop rat realized they wanted; the soon-to-be-mechanic realized during those developmental years that being a bicycle mechanic was a career for them.

Once transitioned into the service department full time, don’t think for a minute this new mechanic wasn’t still also responsible for sweeping or cardboard management. These tasks remained on the checklist, likely until the next summer when a new shop rat would be brought on board.

Through time, what begins to set the professional apart from the mechanic is a series of events: a dedication to their job, a strong desire to fix things, and their desire to continually learn. There are plenty of mechanics out there who do a fine job and are professional, but they may only desire to be the person who assembles bikes. Such a mechanic might enjoy repetition and takes great pride in their personal production. Whomever you employ, whomever you are, be a professional in every sense of the word regardless of your role.

The Professional Bicycle Mechanics Association has now hosted six professional development and networking events, and we have four more planned starting this fall. These workshop events don’t attract “mechanics,” they attract professionals. Our industry’s trade shows are places to gather, to learn, and to network. What sets our events apart is a 100% focus on the mechanic and service departments success, with professionals working with other professionals for self-improvement, all of which contributes to industry improvement.

Training, education, and learning are what make the Professional Bicycle Mechanic more professional. The expectation that a person can go to a place like United Bicycle Institute and step into being the best mechanic in the shop is just short of stupidity. Schools like UBI provide the foundation that a new mechanic needs to become a great mechanic, by providing the individual with the base knowledge to become a professional. All too often I read complaints about the mechanic who is fresh out of “school”… so let’s set a realistic expectation and help these people into our future!

Certification isn’t a guarantee that a mechanic is a professional; it is not a guarantee that they are perfect. It is a stepping stone on the path to professionalism, it is a codified system by which skills can be tested and verified. It is a placard on the wall, just like a doctor might have and certainly like any auto shop has.

Our industry needs to stop beating itself up about low margins on retail goods and start focusing on how we can show the rest of the world that we are a group of people providing professional services on the same scale that they expect from any other common service provider. Plenty of consumers complain about the $100-per-hour plumber or electrician, but still pay those rates. Why are we so afraid to value what we do as businesses?

If you’re employing professionals, great! If you aren’t, then either help your employees take the steps needed to become professionals, or find professionals to raise the level of the service you are providing in your business. Challenge your staff to step up their game, set goals, share numbers. The true professionals will rise to the occasion!

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