Snake Pit Trip
I recently had a chance to go behind the scenes at Directed Electronic�s Snake Pit installer training and show car building facility located in sunny Vista, California (located about 35 miles north of San Diego). They have started to offer a free tour to prospective students so I was invited to come by and check it out.
While I was there they were in the middle of an expansion (in fact, Directed was also expanding other parts of the building because they are growing so fast as well) that would expand the size of the facility from 10,000 square feet to 17,000 square feet. It would also allow for a much larger wood shop, large fabrication area, home theater installation training, and more. No different than paychecks, beer, or engines, bigger is definitely better.
I started my tour out in the lobby. As you walk in they have a big SNAKE PIT mural done in a graffiti style. In the lobby they had their award winning Nissan Sentra show vehicle. Somehow they were able to get this thing into the lobby by taking the lobby doors off and the mirrors off and pushing it in. Anne (the School administrator) checked me in and gave me my visitors pass and away we went into the training facility.
We went up stairs first to the lecture hall. I was told that many of the classes start off with a classroom element before moving down into the fabrication area downstairs. This is also where the Directed technical support guys are located as well as the area where the MECP exams are administered (a room full of computer terminals). Nothing out of the ordinary, although I was surprised at the number of technical support guys there were as well as the number of calls they take on a regular basis (a lot on both counts if you are curious). I�ve been to a number of other manufacturers and this was par for the course.
The first thing we visited was the paint booth. Most of the places I have visited have a paint booth (it really isn�t safe for someone who does this for a living to just start spraying out into the open from a safety point of view), but they are usually pretty small (walk in closet size, bathroom size). The paint booth they had was big enough to drive a full size truck into, similar to what you might find at a professional automotive body shop.
After the paint shop, we headed over to the training room. Bar none, this is one of the best fabrication shops I have ever seen. The room�s ventilation system was set up in such a way that you can have close to 30 students working on projects (sanding or fiberglassing are particularly nasty things to work on) without having to worry about the room becoming overwhelmed with dust or noxious fumes. There are multiple tables set up in the room, each with its own ventilation system that each table as well as each station at each table can be turned off individually if need (to maximize the suction of the vacuum as well as minimize the noise in the room). Each table is also set on retractable casters so if they want to move the tables around the clean the floors or to bring in a larger project they can do that as well. This is a long way from how I learned the ropes (hand sanding a fiberglass project on a plastic trash can wearing a dust mask and goggles).
During my tour they were in the middle of teaching students hands on how to assemble a woofer box. It was interesting to watch the process since I asked some of the same questions that I saw some of the students asking when I first started out.
Another cool tool I saw in the class room was the fake dashboard break out boxes. Before students get to play around in a real vehicle, they are trained on these test boxes that are made to replicate some of the same wiring you might find in a automobile (power, ground, dimmer, illumination, door locks, etc.). Instead of learning in someone�s car (where you are pretty slow starting out) you get to learn in front of this test box with a voltage meter, sitting in a well lit room with your instructors helping you out. I learned on a similar box and from experience it makes it much easier to learn.
Next, we were taken back into the install bay. On this day, they had one of the students working on their own personal vehicle (a early 1990s 5 liter mustang), using product that he had brought from his own store (this student managed or owned his own shop and wanted to get an idea what his install crew went through so he sent himself to school to learn the ropes).
One of the things that stood out was the amount of hands on instruction as well as the low instructor to student ratio. While one of the instructors was showing 3 students how to assemble an enclosure, in the install bay another instructor was showing a student how to build an amp rack for his car with 3 other students. What was also cool was that the instructors were there to guide the students (and stop them from making mistakes) instead of teaching by doing (where the instructors do all the work while the students watch).
Next we went to the wood shop. At the time of my visit, I was informed that the wood shop was going to be growing with the expansion shortly. While not out of the ordinary, they did have everything you might need to fabricate a world class show vehicle (a table saw with a large out feed table, a router table, chop saw and band saw).
Next we were off to see a welding demonstration. While they do teach welding at the Snake Pit, this is geared more towards the more advanced students. Needless to say, the days that the only material an installer uses is wood and butt connectors are over. Being able to weld and fiberglass is definitely a must have.
One of the cornerstones of the training is the MECP exam. The Snake Pit guarantees that you will pass the exam on the first try or they will pay the testing fee to take it again. The vast majority of students pass on the first try and the staff makes itself available to tutor students who need a little extra help to make sure they pass if they have to retest. Many employers look for installers that have been MECP certified sort of like how automotive repair shops look for guys who are ASE certified. When I got certified it involved taking a paper exam, submitting it to CEA and then waiting several weeks to get my results (as well as my certificate). The process is much more streamlined now (the student takes the exam on a computer and then they get the results almost instantly).
Another thing that sets The Snake Pit apart from some of the installations schools is the availability of discounted product for purchase. A good portion of the students who come to the Snake Pit are from Southern California and combined with being able to work on your own car, you can go in and buy world class product, install and have a pretty rockin� install in your own vehicle after the school is all done. For most guys getting started in the business, being able to buy product at a discount is a savings of hundreds if not thousands of dollars off of retail prices. In addition to being able to buy Directed Electronics car audio and security products at a discount, they have also partnered up with Matco Tools to offer a discount on tools as well. One of the biggest hurdles I ran into when I started out installing was being able to get tools and knowing what tools to get. That is all taken care of up front.
One of the other things that set these guys apart is the free tour and class audit. Most potential students are in Southern California so they can easily try before they buy. They get to meet with the instructors, see the facilities, meet some of the current students, and see what kind of cars are being worked on at that time. They also get a free lunch and a free T-shirt for their troubles. To sign up for that you can go here:
After our tour, I got a chance to see the Chevy HHR show vehicle that was featured in the CES and SEMA booths this past year.
The HHR was built with a classic Chevy panel van as an inspiration. From the paint (a XXXXX that was a match to a 1950�s panel van) to the wood runners in the back (based very closely on the spacing and materials used in the original) the theme was to bring an classic look to an updated hot rod.
The other car was Sentra that was featured in the lobby.