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New group launches college-level mechanic education

Published April 16, 2020

Editor's note: A version of this story ran in the April issue of BRAIN.

MINNEAPOLIS (BRAIN) — As the industry continues to suffer from a shortage of qualified mechanics, a new organization, the Bicycle Industry Employers Association, has established a curriculum of college-level classes, scheduled to launch in September 2021 at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

David Olson, the president and part owner of Erik's Bike Shop, is the driving force behind the BIEA. A self-described life-long lover of bicycles who raced BMX as a kid, Olson started his career at Erik's in 1991, working at the chain's second location. Erik's now has 30 locations in seven Midwest states.

While the BIEA formed as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization in December, Olson started his effort about three years ago, he said.

He said while the chain's founder, Erik Saltvold, is "super-supportive," of BIEA and the MCTC program, it's intended to help the whole industry.

"This is not an Erik's thing, I'm working on it independently," Olson said.

Olson cited two motivations for taking on this task after 28 years in retail. "First, the industry hasn't grown," he said. "Second, consumer demand for professional retail environments has boomed, while our shops have lagged behind. As much as we try to train within, we're not bringing in enough new people with professional attitudes who have had the opportunity to invest in themselves through education."

As he moved toward forming an organization, Olson looked at training and certification programs in the automobile, HVAC and aircraft industries. He made the initial MCTC connection 18 months ago. The result is a 28-credit, two-semester Bicycle Assembly & Repair Technician program that still awaits approval of its Application for Program Accreditation by the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits colleges and universities in a 19-state region.

Olson noted that major donations from the industry's largest employers is the most crucial piece to BIEA's success. "We need to fund the launch of every program we initiate," Olson said. Funding is also being sought from paid memberships from industry individuals. "Members get direct access to BIEA-accredited job postings. They can post job openings as a recruiting tool and have a voice in future programs."

"BIEA will need $250,000 by June 2020, which is a heavy task in the current industry climate," Olson said. "For this to succeed, no one business can stamp their name on it. It needs to represent and help the entire industry." Saltvold provided seed money in 2019 to help Olson move forward with MCTC.

BIEA's board consists of three retailers, an outside-the-industry communications director, and Specialized's USA leader of brand development, Stacey Wilhelm, who serves as BIEA's Regional Director.

While the three retailers are primarily Specialized dealers like Erik's, Olson has actively recruited retailers from other brands like David's World in Florida, Richardson Bike Mart, the Trek Superstores and Bike Gallery on the West Coast, and REI as well. "Freewheel Bike, a nine-store Trek dealer here in the Twin Cities, is a member. Our strategy is to be inclusive of industry employers locally and around the country," Olson said.

Wilhelm started her industry career at Lee's Cyclery in Fort Collins, Colorado, and went on to get her MBA at Colorado State University before rejoining the bike realm with roles with Trek and now Specialized. Like Olson and others, Wilhelm is a volunteer and not a paid Specialized representative.

"We're just getting started and we're getting a lot of interest," Wilhelm told BRAIN. "The need is massive, especially because cycling is such a huge piece of transportation. We've gone from something people love to something they need. By being more inclusive, we can lift the whole industry by filling the market with cycling-specific education and new perspectives," she concluded.

Jason Richardson, a 20-year industry veteran who runs Dandy Horse Bicycle Repair in Minneapolis, is developing the MCTC curriculum. His bachelor's degree from the University of Colorado is a prerequisite for the paid role with MCTC. The majority of the curriculum in development is hands-on laboratory learning.

Project Bike Tech (PBT), a mechanic's education program for high school students, has created 23 programs in seven states since 2008. Its executive director, Mercedes Ross, said she is grateful for BIEA's efforts. "We fully support what BIEA is doing and we look forward to working with them. They can fulfill the college segment of continuing the education pathway for PBT graduates," Ross said.

"Our experience tells us that the main money needs to come from the education system, which is very interested in trade education," Ross explained. "While PBT has wide-spread industry support, there's a balance between going after industry funding as seed money and then moving on to the funding available in the education system and from foundations."

Wayne Souza, co-owner of the Conte's Bike Shop chain with 105 employees and 14 shops in three states, started his BIEA board involvement with a question. "How do we make bike mechanics into a career path?" Souza asked.

"We must make bike mechanics perform their trade just as professionally as a BMW or Mercedes mechanic," said Souza. "We need to start assuring bike mechanics a living wage as well as great benefits and professional advancement opportunities. The future of Conte's as well as the industry overall depends on us making BIEA successful."

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