How bike-mechanic apprenticeships could tune up the cycling industry

A formalized apprenticeship program would also benefit consumers and boost prospects of a career as a bike mechanic.

High-end bikes demand high-end service, say shop owners and mechanics

Jessica Brousseau and Jeffery Bryson at the Bikeroom. Brousseau is now an instructor at Bikeroom and the head mechanic at a soon-to-be-opened mountain bike rental shop in North vancouver. (Jeffery Bryson)

A rise in demand for high-end services and skilled labour has some bike mechanics and service shop owners calling for a formalized apprenticeship program in British Columbia.

Supporters argue that working on bikes is a skilled trade that cannot be learned in the classroom and that a standardized experience-based program would signal a level of experience to potential employers and consumers.

"I think now that we're getting into such high performance bikes and more and more people are riding and more and more people want the best ride ... it's opened up a ton of room for high level service," said Dave McInnes, owner of Bicycle Hub, a service-only shop in North Vancouver.

Improving trust

McInnes believes an apprenticeship program would raise the skill level of mechanics and increase trust between shops and the consumer and help increase the perceived value of shop services.

"There's that idea that I think car shops, any specialty shop fights, that idea that you start throwing big terms around and people are just screwing [the consumer] and there's not a lot of trust sometimes," he said.

McInnes said consumers are used to below market value shop pricing, which results in lower wages, even for skilled mechanics.

"People come to expect those rates and they kind of get used to having crappy service and it's hard then to then break out of that."

Dave McInnes, owner of Bicycle Hub, believes an apprenticeship program could help raise the bar for the entire bike service industry and even improve trust between shops and customers. (Ash Kelly/CBC)

Jeffery Bryson, who owns the service-only shop Wheelthing as well as Bikeroom, a North Vancouver-based bike mechanic training school, said some shops might push back at resulting wage increases.

But he believes apprenticeship programs could actually improve bike shop profit margins because they would be able to turn over more jobs faster and with better quality work.

He points to existing apprenticeship programs where car and motorcycle mechanics learn about productivity measures, profitability and business accounting.

"An apprenticeship program should be, in my mind, a timeframe, hours. It shouldn't be, 'Hey, I took this course, I'm a mechanic,'" said Bryson.

'I could have started way younger'

Another benefit of formal training hours could be that more women move into what's long been a male-dominated industry.

Jessica Brousseau got her start as the only woman working in Dream Cycle in Vancouver. She said if there had been an apprenticeship program she would definitely have taken it, and that it may have given her the confidence that she had to work hard to find on her own.

Brousseau is now the head mechanic at a bike rental shop set to open in North Vancouver in the coming weeks.

"If I had this, like when I was in high school, I would have totally went for it ... I didn't know it could be a thing for me to do. Now I'm 35 years old, I started in my 30s to do all this stuff. I could have started way younger," Brousseau said.

Bikeroom students learn how to break down the business side of bike shops. Jeff Bryson, owner of Bikeroom mechanics training school in North Vancouver, says up and coming mechanics need to know about the numbers behind the business to help productivity and profitability. (Ash Kelly/CBC)

Career mechanics

Most bike mechanics earn their stripes the grassroots way, working up from the shop "grom," an endearing term for inexperienced, young mechanics.

Others, like Graeme Toffelmire, choose to become mechanics later in life.

Toffelmire shifted gears after years as a musician and hopes to make a real go at being a bike mechanic. But he's found most shops aren't interested in comprehensive staff development.

"There's this idea that they just need you to be really good at a few things to make the most profit," he said.

Toffelmire said if a shop makes more profit turning over simple flat repairs and brake tunes, mechanics may not get the chance to learn to work with high-end suspension or more complicated jobs, which limits career growth.

Becoming a bike mechanic usually means working your way up from the bottom of the shop but some mechanics and shop owners say a formalized apprenticeship program, like those offered for auto mechanics, would benefit the industry, the consumer and the prospects of career mechanics. 8:30