Matt Wald, vice president of strategic initiatives for the RV Industry Association (RVIA), has led the charge from a staff perspective in developing the industry’s new “RV Technical Institute.”

As such, he’s had a bird’s eye view of the proposed new Elkhart, Ind.-based educational program that was formally approved June 7 by RVIA’s board of directors with the support of the Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association (RVDA) during 2018 RVIA Committee Week at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.

To fill in a few of the blanks, Wald fielded some questions about this bold new program for which $10 million is being budgeted in the first three years alone. And while a search is to get underway soon for a northern Indiana headquarters, satellite training operations are to be set up around the country as part of a program designed to help resolve the industry’s shortage of service techs and, in turn, upgrade the RV arena’s performance in terms of consumer care.

RVB: Matt, you’ve repeatedly stressed that this new training program is an all-industry initiative, not just a trade association undertaking, right?

Wald: Yes, we launched this initiative with two assumptions in mind, the first being that all industry stakeholders would be involved in it. This is not just a dealer issue. This is an issue for OEMs, suppliers, dealers, independent service centers and everyone else. So, everybody’s been involved in this from the very beginning with as much transparency as possible so that everybody was aware this was going on and if they cared to participate, they were able to do so.

And, most importantly, we got the voice of the technician into this process. I visited dealerships all over the country and interviewed technicians, and I learned a lot from that. We also had them involved in some of the curriculum development and it really did affect the way we’re approaching things.

The other thing that the (RVIA) board required is that, if they’re going to make a significant investment, they wanted to see that we were taking a serious data-driven approach to the plan and that the outcomes, the deliverables and benchmarks, would be measurable so that we actually see that we’re moving the needle as opposed to just anecdotal and qualitative approaches.

RVBAnd it’s our understanding that this whole initiative has been well received by the industry at large, has it not?

Wald: Yes, mostly what we heard was, ‘just do it. We’ve waited long enough. This is a huge industry issue. Just get it done. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.’ So, that’s what we heard more than anything else – keeping in mind that people have been working on education in this industry for 30 to 35 years, and the things they were able to accomplish were pretty impressive, considering they were working on a shoestring budget with minimal resources.

(RVIA Vice President of Standards and Education) Bruce Hopkins is known in this industry for standards and while he worked education as a side venture, he was able to accomplish a lot, and so was the team. There are a lot of really smart people who worked really hard on things. But the reality is, when we mapped it out, it had evolved organically over the years, and it was not the way it would have been if we had built it from scratch.

RVB: That said, it certainly does look like you’re starting from scratch this time around.

Wald: Yes, when a consultant first looked at it (the current tech training and certification program), she nearly had a heart attack. She said, ‘that is a spaghetti bowl of business processes. It is no wonder that it is not efficient.’

So, looking at that, the three main themes that emerged were (1) the lack of a standardized, centrally managed training across the country; (2) no focused efforts at all on identifying new recruits. There are individual dealerships that have their own recruitment efforts, but there’s no industry effort around it. Then (3), most significantly, there’s no clear career path if I’m a young person getting out of the military or getting out of high school that clearly says ‘here’s how I go from where I am today to being a proficient tech that’s making $60,000 to $80,000 or more a year living anywhere I want in the country.’ As a result, creating that career path was obviously a priority.

So, in the final analysis, we said, let’s not try to fix what exists. Let’s pretend like we’re starting from a blank slate. How would you build it from scratch to be a successful business venture? So, a lot of smart business people were involved in this, and the plan that they came up with truly is revolutionary, not evolutionary. It’s not a band-aid. It’s not a patch. It’s a complete reinvention of tech training and recruitment and repair event cycle time reduction for the industry.

RVB: What in your view is  the No. 1 takeaway that emerged from this whole strategic planning process over the past year?

Wald: The top-line recommendation, the headline, if you will, in our data-driven approach, is that we need to hire a dedicated team to develop and implement a robust marketing and placement program for those newly recruited technicians at dealerships and service centers across the country.

And the other one of the KPI’s — Key Performance Indicators – that came out of it is that in five years we want to find and train 5,000 new technicians, and we want to better train 6,000 existing technicians. So, it’s aggressive, but it’s achievable.

The thing you want to remember about all this is that we are competing with all of the technical trades in the country — HVAC, generator repair, diesel repair, trucks, motorcycles, boats. Everybody’s in the same situation that we’re in. The difference is they’re all making efforts, and to this point, we haven’t. This industry is behind.

What I’m talking about here is recruiting, specifically recruiting new people into the industry who want to follow a defined career path as an RV technician. So that does exist in other industries, in other trades. We’re competing with those trades for those blue-collar workers. It’s a struggle because today guidance counselors at high schools are saying, ‘If you don’t go to college, then you’re not doing the right thing.’ So, there’s a whole body of work there that needs to be done around this.

RVB: Long story short, the RV industry is playing catch up?

Wald: Absolutely, especially in curriculum and credentialing. This is an area where the industry is really suffering right now because we haven’t had an updated curriculum for eight to 10 years. So, the recommendations coming out of this is we need to develop world class curriculum. What I mean by that is digital textbooks, video, PowerPoint decks, distance learning tools, gamification – making learning more fun — around this so that we have a wide buy-in.

RVB: You’ve mentioned that Camping World, along with a number of other companies, have played a key role in the task force’s planning.

Wald: I visited the Camping World Technical Institute in Marion, N.C., and learned a lot. If they say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, there are some things that they’re doing very, very well that are included in this plan. But that’s also true, I want to say, of FRVTA. They’re doing some really high quality stuff down there, and we frankly looked at it and said, ‘Yes, that goes in the plan.’

Same with NERVDA (the New England Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association)and the distance learning that PRVCA (the Pennsylvania RV and Campground Association) is doing. So, we went around and we cherry-picked the best ideas and included them in the plan.

RVB: One more thing: Any clues as to where in Elkhart RVIA plans to locate its new RVTI headquarters and training facility?

Wald: The heart of this program is an Elkhart area headquarters and training facility. This training facility is envisioned as having inherent to it a repair facility that is as close to a repair facility that you would see in a dealership or independent service center as possible so that people who are recruited to this technical training institute would get true, hands-on experience just like they would get where they’re going to be working for the rest of their careers.

So, you’ve got a very aggressive recruitment campaign to bring new recruits to this industry to Elkhart to attend this RVTI Training Institute where they would be provided with a boot camp. That, because of its proximity to the industry, might include factory tours and donated equipment from suppliers and OEM’s.

And when all is said and done, there’s a career path for those who choose to attend this boot camp in Elkhart for however long it lasts, and that’s to be determined. Then, if they want to live in Florida, they’re placed at a Florida dealership. If they want to live in California, New England or Wisconsin, they get placed anywhere in the country, and they have a clear path to a career where eventually they’re going to make a good living.