Craig Van Batenburg on the Electric Revolution and the Future of Auto Repair

By Bill McDonough
Editor

What does a self-proclaimed “left over hippie” know about the future of the auto repair business that you do not? Plenty.

Craig Van Batenburg is a pretty humble and likeable guy. But that does not prevent him from speaking out on a variety of topics related to the industry he chose to make his career at an early age. The son of a used car dealer fell in love with motorcycles and cars in high school, and spent 10 years working for Honda, Toyota, and Datsun dealerships in central Massachusetts.

In 1977 Craig and his wife, Deborah, opened Van Batenburg Garage in Worcester, an auto body repair shop specializing in the Asian-made vehicles they loved. The shop grew and expanded, driven by Craig’s constant focus on process improvement. He also began teaching the repair trade to other technicians, eventually becoming an AMI Accredited Automotive Manager (AAM, and achieving a Master Certification from ASE (Levels 1 and 3).

By 1998 Craig’s focus has shifted away from repairs to teaching. Spurred by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts pending changes to vehicle emissions standards, he and Deborah founded the Auto Career Development Center (ACDC). ACDC filled a critical need at a time when Massachusetts repair shops, for the first time, were required to be emissions certified. Craig taught an 80-hour emissions course, and later expanded into training on the repair of electric and hybrid vehicles.

A Focus on Electric Vehicles

Perhaps part of his “hippie” legacy, Craig has long been a proponent of hybrid and electric vehicles. He purchased one of the very first Honda Insight hybrids sold in the U.S. in 1999, and still owns and drives it!

Craig was way ahead of curve as automakers slowly accepted and adapted to the inevitable shift to hybrid and electric vehicles. Now, with most manufacturers introducing at least one electric vehicle to their lineup (and some even shifting all production to electric drive vehicles), Craig is a pioneer in educating shop owners and technicians on proper and safe repair of this new technology. His Qualified Hybrid Service Center Program (QSP) has certified dozens of shops and hundreds of technicians in the repair of hybrid and electric vehicles.

With so much training to be done, Craig and Deborah closed Van Batenburg Garage in 2004 to devote their efforts full-time to training. In addition to regular training at the ACDC facility in Worcester, Craig travels the country and the world conducting seminars and workshops, working with vehicle manufacturers, MSOs, trade associations, and colleges.

The Future of Technician Training

Craig estimates he has taught more than 13,000 technicians over the years. Which makes him uniquely qualified to comment on the state of training and education in the auto repair industry. He made an impact at the 2017 NACE convention with an impassioned speech on the need for a major shift in the training process in order to attract young technicians to the automotive repair industry.

“What we are doing is not working,” says Craig, who recently consulted with Massachusetts State Senator Jamie Eldridge on the pressing issue of training for new technicians. Craig believes the automotive repair industry is putting up too many barriers to entry to entice young talent to make it a career.

This summer’s strike by mechanical and auto body technicians in Chicago demanding higher wages is an indication of the frustration workers are feeling, according to Craig. “Just look at something as simple as asking technicians to supply their own tools, when they are barely getting by on the wages they are being paid.”

“These problems are fixable, but will require cooperation on everybody’s part,” says Craig. Instead of expecting vocational schools to churn out “work ready” technicians – which seldom works out – Craig’s plan calls for shops to adopt an internship program in which potential technicians spend several weeks or months “learning the ropes” under actual shop conditions. Interns should be paid a stipend and provided with housing while they undergo this on-the-job training period. Shops can then choose to hire those trainees who possess the highest potential.

And if you hire them, pay them well. Trying to squeeze a few more dollars of profit on the backs of employees is counterproductive. “Shop owners who are willing to take a little less so they can pay a little more will be the ones who survive,” says Craig.

Craig and Deborah don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk. They purchased a triple decker home in Worcester to house the interns they take on at ACDC, serving as a model for shops who want to adopt this enlightened approach to training.

ASA Roots in Massachusetts

Way back in 1993 Craig and Deb decided the region needed a more directly focused association to support repair shops. After attending a regional ASA meeting in Florida, they contacted the association’s national office and had soon established a Massachusetts chapter, which later expanded to include Rhode Island. After several years of on-again/off-again interest from other shops, this original ASA connection faded away until reestablished by Steve Regan in 2017. 

Craig and Deborah, who have served as foster parents, are also deeply involved in a program known as FAATCATS (Foster, Adopted, Abandoned Teenagers Can Attain Transformation), a non-profit organization whose goal is to provide at-risk teens with jobs, educational opportunities, guidance, mentoring, training, and family ties.

You may think that Craig Van Batenburg has accomplished a lot in his 45-year automotive career. But even a brief conversation with him will convince you that he is just getting started.

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