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Max Umbs: ‘I grew up with a wrench in my hand’

Automotive technician from Van Horn Kia of Sheboygan attends world skills competition in South Korea

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July 1, 2024

SHEBOYGAN – Max Umbs said he knows a thing or two about automobile maintenance.

Umbs – a service technician at Van Horn Kia of Sheboygan – recently represented the United States at the Kia Skill World Cup in Seoul, South Korea.

Held every two years in Seoul, the competition invited the best Kia technicians from each participating country.

The World Cup competition took place over two days – May 21-23 – starting with a written test and followed by the hands-on portion.

Umbs said unlike the national competition in California – which he won over 14 other technicians from across the United States – where technicians diagnosed multiple vehicles with a single failure, World Cup contestants were tasked with diagnosing a single vehicle with multiple failures.  

As for his training and how he got so proficient at his job, Umbs said, “I’ve been fortunate to receive a lot of training from many sources.”

“I find when I’m sitting down being taught something technical, the way it’s presented – or who is presenting it – may not be taught in a way that necessarily works for me,” he said. “If you can get that information and education from multiple sources – where everybody is taught the same subject matter but in different ways – that helps a lot. Everybody is different and grew up in different environments. Everyone also has different genetics on how you absorb your information – it’s part of life.”


During the national competition – where the top two qualifiers advanced to Seoul – Umbs said technicians were evaluated based on their ability to diagnose and fix vehicles in five different areas: Electrical systems, body network, drivability, engine mechanical and transmission.

“To participate in the national event, I had to be at a certain training level – master status with Kia,” Umbs said. “I had to complete a 50-question qualification test online – you have about three hours to complete it. If you score high enough in your region, you get a phone call and an interview. If that goes well – and the dealership approves – you’re allowed to attend the national competition. I took first place overall in my region.”

Max Umbs, an automotive technician at Van Horn Kia of Sheboygan, recently represented the United States at the Kia Skill World Cup in Seoul, South Korea, May 21-23. Submitted Photo

Umbs said Kia breaks the U.S. into five sales regions – two on the West Coast, one southern, one central and one in the eastern part.

Though he qualified for the national competition in 2012 and 2018, he had never qualified for the world competition before.

“I had the highest qualifying test score in the (central) region,” he said. “When I competed at nationals, it was 15 technicians – three from each region. Halfway through the competition, I was legitimately ready to quit and give up. I didn’t think I was doing well, and the stress was getting to me – I felt I wasn’t grasping what the faults were (in the test).”

However, determination and pride, Umbs said, inspired him to continue.

“I stayed with it because I didn’t want to be the guy who sat on the bus the rest of the day,” he said. “I found out the next night at the awards ceremony I took first place overall in the country. The U.S. purposely makes the national competition stressful because they are trying to find the best candidates to send to the world competition.”

World competition

First hosted in 2001, the 11th Kia Skill World Cup marked the first offline event after the COVID-19 pandemic since 2018 – gathering 42 national winners from 40 countries to compete in the finals.

The 42 national winners competed in both written and practical tests spanning various fields, including fault diagnosis, powertrain, chassis and electrical repair.

The top 12 technicians were honored with gold, silver, bronze and excellence awards, receiving trophies, medals and prizes.

“The trip to Seoul felt short,” Umbs said. “We were there Monday morning to Friday afternoon – from when the plane landed in Seoul to when we took off again.”

Umbs said there was pressure to perform there as well – especially since he was representing the United States of America.

“Ultimately, I overlooked some basic things (during the competition) on the diagnosis portion that prevented me from medaling – at least in my opinion,” he said.

Though Umbs didn’t secure a medal at the World Cup, he said he did receive the Excellence Award for Outstanding Performance.

Max Umbs

“Because I didn’t medal, I’m still eligible to compete two years from now when the competition comes up (again),” he said. I definitely want to compete again. It’s (all) about how I do on the next qualification test and how I do at nationals.”

How it began

Like many auto technicians, Umbs, 43, said, “I grew up with a wrench in my hand.”

“I grew up in Milwaukee and have lived in Port Washington for the past 35 years,” he said. “My dad worked in a motorcycle shop – that’s where I learned a lot… that’s where the (mechanic) bug bit me. I also noticed I had a knack for it in high school, so I took some tech ed classes.”

After high school, Umbs said Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) made the most sense for him.

“After high school, I went through the Ford ASSET program at MATC,” he said. “MATC was 18 minutes down the road from my house, so that made more sense to me than the big-name schools – (because of the) cost standpoint, the level of acknowledgment I gained and the fact I earned an associate degree when I was done.”

The Ford ASSET program is a 24-month, six-semester, associate degree training program that provides participants with the skills to succeed in the automotive industry.

By combining classroom training and automotive internship experiences, Umbs said students benefit from specialized training on Ford vehicles, components and software.

After MATC, Umbs said he began working at Van Horn Ford Kia of Sheboygan.

“I’ve been here (at the Sheboygan location) before it was known as Van Horn,” he said. “It will be 25 years (this month).” 

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