Instructor Insight: The ‘Trick’ to Student Employment Referrals
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Instructor Insight: The ‘Trick’ to Student Employment Referrals

One automotive instructor’s advice to students as they prepare to join the ranks as a technician in the automotive service industry.

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Jason Merritt is an automotive service technology instructor at Riverland Community College in Albert Lea, MN.Opinion piece by Jason Merritt

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Have you ever heard of the Masked Magician?  This magician, (wearing a mask to hide his identity) reveals the insider tricks to how illusions are done.  After seeing the trick behind the illusion revealed, I’m often astounded at how simple and obvious the “trick” really was.

Like the masked magician, I intend to use my experience as an instructor to expose insider information regarding what employers expect from graduates.

In particular, I will reveal the questions employers ask instructors when they call for job references on graduates. Strangely enough, automotive instructors often assume that you already know this information.

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We assume that it would be obvious, that you must already know the “trick.” But the longer I teach, the less I’m convinced that students are privy to this insider information.  And, it shouldn’t be a secret! 

You need to know this information because, only when you know exactly what an employer is looking for, can you fully plan and guide your education to become the professional they are seeking.

Furthermore, I am not just going to reveal the questions they ask, I will even tell you some “tricks” you can use to make sure your reference is a good one.

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As instructors, we often are called for references on our recent and past graduates. It is quite possible that we are the only reference that employers call.

By revealing the questions that employers ask, I will give you a firsthand view of what employers are seeking from graduates.

For years, I thought that these qualities would be intuitive and obvious to students. However, when I ask students what the number one question I am generally asked by prospective employers is, a surprising number do not get this right. 

So, answer the question for yourself right now; then read on and see if you are surprised.

Before revealing the questions, there are some general points about references that should be mentioned. The starting point of any reference is to ask the person you intend to use as reference for permission. Most instructors will not give any reference without permission.

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Also, you must list the instructor on your application as a reference. If these two steps are not done, instructors are commonly informed not to release any information, other than public, to an employer. Employers do not like taking the time to call a reference only to hear “I can’t help you.”

Some become frustrated and get the impression the instructor is using the old adage ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’ This may lead them to discard your application and move on to the next one.

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There are laws regarding what a reference can and cannot discuss. These regulations can differ from state to state, and can be the topic of much discussion and debate.  Since this is a large subject and can be open to different interpretations, this article will not attempt discussion in detail.

However, I can give you a general, common guideline; questions and answers should remain job-performance related. Therefore, employers should not ask questions, and references should not divulge information which may be discriminatory or personal.

Some examples would include information regarding race, religion, birthplace, health issues, marital status and presence or intention of having children. Many instructors will discuss only items which can be tied to specific, provable performance, and they shy away from questions which are based solely on opinion. Some are so cautious that they discuss only the most basic information.

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Now, let’s revisit the question I asked you to consider: “What is the first question instructors are usually asked when an employer calls for a reference?”

Did you think of something that dealt with attendance and promptness?  If not, you missed what is almost always the first thing employers ask me about students.

The majority of instructors I ask, corroborate that this question is the number one question they are asked. One of the largest issues employers have with employees is absences and/or tardiness. Technical skills are useless if an employee is not present and dependable.

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This is one reason why it is so important that you take your attendance and punctuality seriously. Don’t miss any school unless it is truly an unavoidable conflict.

Consider this: The instructor is prohibited from discussing any personal reasons, such as health or family problems, as to why poor attendance existed.

Therefore, the reason why you did not attend, or had a pattern of tardiness, likely cannot be divulged. Of course, the most important reason is to maximize your learning during the time you have in school. Put simply, less attendance equals less training received.

When emergencies cause a rare absence or tardiness, most teachers are understanding and take that into consideration when giving a reference. In contrast, “Poor” attendance refers to an obvious pattern of high absences without validity. With some candid self evaluation, the difference between the two can be distinguished. 

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If you just nodded, then you probably already knew that.

Employers often ask me about a student’s grades or how well he/she did in school. This is a hard question for an instructor to answer because specific grades cannot be released to anyone but the student. Some instructors will respond with a “borderline, average, excellent” type of response.

Employers often ask this because they want to know if you were willing to do more than just pass the minimum standards to obtain a diploma. This field continuously changes and will require career-long education and updates.

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Your performance in school can give them an indication of not only your current ability, but also your level of commitment and motivation toward education. When making a choice between two graduates, performance in school definitely could be a factor. 

The “trick” here is simple: Take your education seriously and work hard throughout the entire time. Make sure you achieve the best grades that your ability will allow. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need all A’s, it does mean you need to apply yourself.

A student with a strong work ethic who takes education seriously is displaying two highly desirable qualities that employers look for. This rarely goes unnoticed by your instructor, regardless of what you GPA turns out to be.

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In contrast, the student who obtains a minimum passing level in their shop class with two weeks to go and then stands around the rest of the semester also makes a pointed statement to the instructor about their level of motivation.

Likewise, the student who does shoddy work, shortcuts proper procedure, and bypasses learning on a quest to only accumulate grades is demonstrating their level of commitment. This is the kind of information employers want to know about student’s performance.

Again, if you practice candid self examination, the head nodded again.

There are two other common topics of questions worth mentioning. Employers, of course, ask about student’s competency in basic repair of vehicles, but along with this, they often ask about competency in diagnostics and electronics, and learning new skills.

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Since the field of automotive technology requires career-long learning and adaptability, employers want someone who will not only be valuable today, but also in the future.

The second topic revolves around attitude. Employers often want to know how serious you are, how professional you are; they want to know if you are honest, dedicated, and motivated. This is a difficult area for an instructor to respond to because it can become opinion-oriented and difficult to prove objectively.

To get an insider view of the indicators instructors commonly use to substantiate this, you need only review the earlier paragraphs.

On a final note, I want to let you in another piece of information. It is about the underlying intention of instructors who continuously stress things like punctuality, motivation and attitude.

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Nearly every instructor I know does these things because we really desire to see our students be successful and become a part of a rewarding career. We know that these things are as valuable as any tool you could ever place in your tool box.

We root for you; we want you to succeed; we take pride in your accomplishments. It is my hope that you are nodding.  

About the Author:
Jason Merritt has been an automotive service technology instructor at Riverland Community College in Albert Lea, MN, since 2000. He also is an advisor for Skills USA. Jason spent almost 10 years working in dealerships as an automotive technician. He has a diploma and an Associate of Applied Science degree in Auto Service Technology from North Dakota State College of Science. He is an ASE certified master technician and advanced drivability specialist, and is also certified in engine assembly and cylinder head repair. He is a member of the International Automotive Technician’s Network (iATN). 

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