Techs of the Future: Preparing & Training the Agents of Change in Future Technology

Elaina Farnsworth
Elaina Farnsworth

A few years ago, when people talked about connected vehicles and self-driving, Elaina Farnsworth said it was perceived as a computer-based industry.

The CEO of The NEXT Education said every person interested in intelligent transportation and mobility systems was expected to have computer science and engineering skills.

Very quickly, organizations realized the need for technicians to repair the infrastructure and technology in these vehicles after a collision.

“It is no longer your dad’s automobile,” said Farnsworth. “Cars are evolving where most of all vehicles are built with sensor technology and move data. As a technician, you will need to know a little about sensors, technology, electrical systems and mechanical systems.”

She recalls attending the SEMA Show in 2016 and listening to John Waraniak, vice president of vehicle technology at SEMA.

“He said that many years ago, we would be standing up on this stage saying, ‘I have the fastest, coolest and loudest car,’” said Farnsworth. “In the next 10 years, we are going to be saying, ‘I have the most connected car.’”

Anticipating the changes ahead, Farnsworth set out to create a learning path for the next generation of workers interested in being part of the automotive industry.

“We need technicians to understand the coolness around these vehicles and we need the repairers to understand this is a very interesting field that pays a lot of money,” she said. “It doesn’t take a four-year degree.”

Instead, she said technicians can learn the necessary skills through targeted education. Farnsworth has focused on certification, training and upskilling programs in intelligent transportation, connected and autonomous vehicles and new mobility systems for more than 20 years.

In 2018, she established The NEXT Education, offering certification and credentialing programs related to connected transportation systems, autonomous vehicles and cybersecurity. This year, Farnsworth partnered with Regina Hopper, who has a background in transportation, communications, energy public policy, media and law, and serves as the chief strategy officer.

“Our mission is simple: we want to create agents of change who will lead critical new mobility systems development and deployment,” explained Farnsworth.

The program is based on what she refers to as “MicroTraX,” a hybrid education model that combines self-paced learning with instructor interaction.

The online live training is presented by subject-matter experts who are leaders in their respective fields. Each seven- to 10-minute module is built to be a consumable piece of competency-based education to prepare organizations and individuals for the future.

Since COVID-19, The NEXT Education has been focusing on online live instruction, but plans to return to in-person seminars in 2021.

The learning is geared to a cross-section of the industry and is targeted to both new technicians entering the industry as well as those seeking professional development.

Farnsworth said students can learn the latest in 5G or satellite technology without being overwhelmed, because the information is presented “one bite at a time.” Content is continually added every quarter, so the information remains current and relevant.

“My real passion has been getting the word out about the dire need we have today for technicians as well as what we are going to see in the future,” she said.

Since COVID-19, The NEXT Education has experienced an increase in usage, especially due to the short training sessions offered. The team of 20 has found organizations are reaching out to have technicians learn additional skills during the current downtime in their businesses.

“Many have worked in the industry for years and are moving into a new position due to the unforeseen circumstances worldwide as a result of the pandemic,” said Farnsworth.

With the collision repair industry evolving, new businesses have been established over the past few years related to predictive analysis and connectivity.

Farnsworth said having highly skilled technicians in this new environment encourages workers to remain in the industry and allows shops to stand out from their competitors.

“It would be a huge competitive advantage for a small shop to be able to understand the technology changes that are coming both in sensor technology and data transmission,” she added.

In addition to the core competencies every technician will still need to repair a vehicle, Farnsworth encourages shop owners and managers to determine where the majority of their business is coming from.

“Instead of seeing this as so vast that you want to start over, take into consideration the skillsets you have and then look at where you want to specialize,” she said.

She encourages those in the industry, especially collision repairers, to realize how great the new world will be with these technologies and try to become part of it.

“Talking about all of this technology sounds awesome and it is, but when you boil it down to what really makes it work is the people,” said Farnsworth.

Fixed Operations Director Recognizes Need for Training in Future Technology

About a year ago, Jamie Powers, the fixed operations director at Lujack Auto Group, learned about The NEXT Education’s certification program in autonomous vehicles. He explored what the organization offered and whether it would be a good fit for his technicians at 20 stores in Michigan, Indiana and Iowa.

With autonomous features becoming more prevalent in cars today, Powers recognizes the need to have all sensors on a vehicle correctly set when a customer leaves the shop.

“We are under a new liability,” he said. “That started waking me up to learn the new processes that are coming our way.”

Four of his body technicians enrolled in two online courses from The NEXT Education, focused on the electronic components included in autonomous vehicles. They have been impressed with the instruction, and the ultimate goal is to earn a certification in this area. Eventually, Powers plans to have all of his technicians participate in the educational learning.

“There’s always an evolution in the car industry and I think autonomy is the next evolution,” he said.

Powers said OEMs are slowly taking control over what collision shops will be required to do to repair vehicles properly. A decade ago, customers could take their cars anywhere. Now, they need to be certified by a certain manufacturer.

Autonomous vehicles are going to be part of that, according to Powers, and technicians will need to be certified.

“If technicians aren’t certified on autonomous vehicles, insurance companies will not ok a customer to bring in an autonomous vehicle to any shop,” he said. “If we’re not on the leading edge of being certified on autonomous vehicles, that is going to be a big part of the business we’ll miss out on.”

Stacey Phillips Ronak

Stacey Phillips Ronak is an award-winning writer for the automotive industry and a regular columnist for Autobody News based in Southern California.

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