Technicians learned their craft in hands-on workshops under the tutelage of the industry’s foremost experts. 

When I left Salomon in the spring of 1987, my motivations could be distilled into three principal components:

  • The parent company declared it was moving its Reno-based North American HQ back from whence it came. Neither I nor my family had the slightest desire to return to New England.
  • I felt I was spending more energy battling factions within my own company than I was out-flanking our competition. I’d worked more or less without a break since June of 1978. My thin veneer of patience cracked.
  • I wanted to write screenplays. Not that I had demonstrated any talent for creative writing or had any training in the field. I’d written reams of technical swill, brochure copy, training manuals and memos which created the illusion that I could at least write something, so why not screenplays?

 Note that none of these factors involves finding a new job. At the time, I didn’t want to resume wearing the shackles of employment as they would interfere with my ludicrous screenwriting ambitions. Then the stock market went into a tailspin in October, crippling what little equity I’d managed to accrue on my minimalist salary.  Oops.

Adrift in the Ocean of Self-Employment

 I’d already started to pen the occasional piece for Snow Country Magazine, but it would be several more years before that enterprise qualified as a living.  I wrote bits of PR swill for the Reno Hilton hotel/casino, authored some short promo videos and concocted a multi-media learn-to-ski system modestly titled The Truth About Skiing.  It won an award in some arcane category at a film festival in Telluride, after which it slid without further notice into perpetual obscurity.

 I suppose it goes without saying that I never sold a screenplay.

 So when Alan Adezio, then the proprietor of Skiing Mechanics & Managers Workshop Tour, called with an offer to join its faculty for the 1988 circuit, I eagerly accepted.  

 I’m sure Adezio was hoping I would be a draw, but I was a relatively minor player compared to the tour’s established stars, each of whom was without peer in his or her field. The magnificently mustachioed Jim Deines was a pioneer in the arena of base preparation and repair. Bob Gleason was the preeminent professor of bootfitting, a tradition that continues to this day. [Full Disclosure: Gleason was my roomie for many years at the SKI magazine tests, but these Revelations shall have to wait for another occasion.]

While all the members of the Workshop faculty were gifted educators, Carl Ettlinger was the animating force behind the entire venture.  

Travels with Carl

Then there was Carl. Carl Ettlinger was the chief architect, spirit guide and spotlight-loving prima donna who animated the whole enterprise, imbuing it all with his sense of divine mission. Ettlinger’s area of expertise was in bindings, and consequently risk management, but his influence wasn’t limited to these areas. Ettlinger was an intellectual omnivore with a rat-a-tat delivery that kept students on their collective toes trying to follow his conversational gyrations. 

Even though I had never so much as sold a single ski during my Salomon years, I was the Tour’s ski expert. I created three, 4-hour modules, one for ski design, another for ski buying and selling and a third on risk management that I co-presented with Ettlinger. When you work side by side with someone with as out-sized a personality as Carl, your reactions pinball from admiration to annoyance, careening from amusement to amazement before finally arriving at an insight that’s all the more valuable for having passed through the dozen digressions that Carl regularly peppered into his voluble conversation. 

I travelled the country for two fall tours. In year two, at guess-who’s insistence, the program was re-named Skiing Professional Development Workshops, without otherwise changing its curriculum. Ettlinger didn’t much care for the fact that a program that he considered his was being run by someone else, a situation he soon corrected.  Ettlinger eventually sold the program to SIA, where its value depreciated until its digital bones, The Ski Mechanics Learning Center, were mercifully interred this summer. 

What We’ve Lost

The largely unheralded demise of Ettlinger’s dream is as easy to understand as its loss is difficult to calculate. The keyword in the 1988 tour’s title was “Workshop.”  Ettlinger knew that hands-on instruction was essential for the teaching to stick. One of his adages was, “Listening isn’t learning.” The classes taught by Ettlinger and Deines and Gleason didn’t just recite a syllabus; they engaged their charges in a way that made their lessons memorable. 

But the margins possible on such a tour aren’t what a sharp investor would consider attractive. Hands-on learning requires lots of skis to grind badly, boots to punch poorly and bindings to misadjust. If coverage is going to be national, many locations are bound to be upside down.  Only someone with Ettlinger’s evangelical drive would see past the lost dollars to the real goal, a trained work force able to intercept the problems that lead to injury.   

In the Covid-19 era, “hands-on training” sounds more dangerous than edifying, but it has never been more needed. One of the last training programs extant, Masterfit University – where Gleason still plies his trade – has converted its core curriculum (Associate and Masters programs) to a virtual format that includes scheduled live instruction. 

To preserve quality training during the pandemic is a noble undertaking worth supporting, but the loss of hands-on learning opportunities inevitably erodes some of the instruction’s effectiveness. (Registration for Masterfit University’s online training will open at around the first of November.)  

 Our fragile little “industry” used to spend a small fortune on training; now it spends next to nothing. (I experienced this attrition at close hand as a co-creator of Desperate Measures, a comprehensive ski retail training program that – you guessed it – died from a distinct lack of clients.)

If you think manufacturer sales clinics are going to close the education gap, I invite you to attend one.  Their purpose isn’t to develop skills at a fundamental level, but to indoctrinate a brand’s product Feature-Advantage-Benefit story for each model in a dealer’s inventory. There is neither time, space nor appetite for such niceties as how to mount a binding, resolve complex fit issues or even draw comparisons between one brand’s skis and another’s, although that’s precisely what most customers want to know.

Because they are marketing sessions as opposed to technical training, sales clinics are typically a morass of platitudes, quips and inflated claims that don’t dispense any of the training that formed the backbone of the Mechanics and Managers Workshop Tours. 

It’s as if the ski trade were operating a university that didn’t offer courses in the sciences on the grounds that they didn’t provide enough opportunities for advertising.   

Pardon me. My Proustian efforts at re-visiting my past have led me to the top of a teetering stack of soapboxes. If I seem a bit overwrought on the subject, it’s because I cut my teeth in this trade turning actual training – as opposed to puffery – into a profit center. 

Enduring, effective training programs necessitate a culture that places a premium on education. When times are tough and budgets aren’t just pinched but crushed, training expenses become an expendable frill. All any brand can do is pump out an appealing product story and hope some fraction of it sticks.

I know, I promised to sign off two paragraphs ago. I just wanted to score a few more points to secure my nomination for Western Region Curmudgeon of the Year before the balloting closes.