The University of Toyota aims to enlarge the database ‘twixt your ears

Copyright © 2006 Terry Parkhurst. All rights reserved.

There’s a university for those who need to learn to work on Toyota cars and trucks of all vintages. Established in 1999, the University of Toyota offers more than 400 courses to 8,500 employees in the United States; but you won’t find it on any map. It consists not only of an electronic learning curriculum, but also a selection of seminars held at various locations around the country.

“We have people who can be super-specialists in this business,” said Paul Williamsen, curriculum development manager for the University of Toyota. “Lots of people get lots of different paychecks from different places.”

Williamsen’s background has equipped him well to understand the needs of people wrenching and using diagnostic scopes on all vintages of Toyota automobiles. He put himself through the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis by working as a service technician during the summer. However, when he graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Education, he didn’t go into teaching. He took a full-time job as a BMW service technician instead. He followed that by becoming a Certified Porsche Technician.

He left Porsche repair work to become a technical services instructor at the Kansas City Toyota Regional Center. “Porsche was very cyclical in the 1980s,” he explained. Then, the opportunity to become a curriculum development manager at Toyota’s American headquarters in Torrance, California, came up. And now, he helps explain how to fix Toyotas.

Williamsen works closely with schools that have automotive technology programs to ensure they meet the needs of Toyota. But additionally, makes technical training information available to Toyota’s 1,200-dealer network via a secure Internet site. All Toyota technical manuals are available, to independent shops and dealer service departments alike, for a “modest fee,” according to Williamsen, at

“But that material may not be necessary for basic repairs,” he added. “An independent shop can get anything we give a dealer there. We have to ensure that whatever we face on a Prius, Sienna or Scion, training is available.”

Regional offices for Toyota Motor Corporation have technical trainers and product trainers with coursework developed by the University of Toyota. “Almost always, we use staff associates of the company,” Williamsen said. “For example, we have technical trainers for all of the Northwest region. It doesn’t make sense to conduct training only at our Portland (Oregon) office.”

Williamsen also works closely with schools that have automotive technology programs to ensure that they meet the needs of Toyota. “At Shoreline Community College (in Shoreline, Washington state), there’s a dedicated Toyota program,” he said. “There’s also a similar program at Umpqua College in Roseburg, Oregon. We have a number of relationships with post-secondary schools. My responsibility is to orient those on the front-end for sales.”

There’s an additional quantifiable benefit to those partnerships. “Through the Toyota Technical Education Network (T-TEN), we can help the schools understand the attributes we want in a technician or his or her training. We give them vehicles, repair manuals, access to our systems and tools,” Williamsen said. “That doesn’t that all students will be Toyota technicians. The key is that every school has to have an advisory council made up of local dealers. This gives the school a market perspective, based on ‘here’s what we need.’ It helps the educators create an employable Toyota technician.

“We use a mix of trainers; but because of variable demand on a range of topics. We supplement that with additional trainers such as those with the University of Toyota or independent contractors. We also supplement it with free-lance trainers. In the case of the Prius, we used a two-phase process to train dealer salespeople,” he explained. “First, my regional sales staff met with six to eight salespeople at a time, to provide training. Then, my operation has special coursework for 2 ½ days that provided Prius specialist trainers. We used free-lance trainers for five to six sessions through that period.”

As for training tools, Williamsen said that, in itself, took some innovation. “We use every tool we can,” he added, including instructors, self-study videos, coursework booklets and a variety of training aids. We might machine (using machine tools) a desktop model of how the power shift (between the internal combustion engine and the electric motor) in the Prius occurs and put that right on a desk where the technicians can see and touch it.”

Basic training materials are also made available to independent shops, Williamsen said, because, “It wouldn’t be fair to our customers who can’t always be close to a Toyota dealership with their cars.”

Williamsen sees Toyota’s aftermarket parts program, STAR, as operating in a similar fashion.  “Parts distributed through the local Toyota dealer helps Toyota dealers see the potential for selling parts wholesale, without cannibalizing their own service departments,” he asserted. “A Toyota dealer in Spokane (Washington state) might sell parts to a shop in Cambridge, Idaho, where there might not be a Toyota dealership and are far away enough that there’d be no loss of customers.”

For those running first generation MR2s or mid-1970s Corollas, there’s an additional benefit to the STAR program, Williamsen said, in that, “The STAR program ensures that customers with older Toyotas (also) get quality parts and service.”

Among the systems being introduced by Toyota (and other manufacturers) that Williamsen sees as creating demand for training are pre-crash systems, increasing adaptation of navigation systems and adaptation of sophisticated engine control systems.

 “If we see an increase in a particular vehicle’s system, that’s data that can be fed back to improve the design or production process,” he explained. “Our goal is to identify problems before a customer does.” Towards that end, high-mileage tests of new cars, trucks or sport utilities are conducted by driving them from the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan to Los Angeles, California.

Crossing the Rockies multiple times – what Williamsen calls “a two-way loop” – is usually enough to tell engineers of potential problems. But the reality is that some problems may escape even those road trips. That’s where warranty claims show their value to something other than dealerships’ bottom line.

“Warranty data – we look at that as a really valuable way of knowing how the customer looks at the car,” Williamsen said. Then too, the JD Power initial quality survey (IDS) on new vehicles is another way of tracking problems, he added.  So the University of Toyota remains the best repository of information for Toyota enthusiasts, as well as qualified service technicians.

Toyota University

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