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Broken Cars, Not Promises, Float Their Boats

Auto repair students figure much of the rhetoric wafting from nearby Staples doesn't apply to them. 'We don't have a plank in their platforms,' one said.


People here usually don't talk about "trickle-down" economics. Or a rising tide lifting all boats.

They don't debate much about policies and reforms or Republicans and Democrats.

But automotive repair students in Los Angeles' Crenshaw District said they are hoping for some very personal proof of the "progress and prosperity" touted by the Democrats on Monday.

"When I hear that, I think, 'That's wonderful,' " said Lilaine Rogers, 33, a student at the Los Angeles Urban League Automotive Training Center. "That applies to a percentage of people, but I fell off into the percentage that's unemployed. I feel like I'm not even a part of that statistic. I know opportunities are there, but that's for people with degrees."

Just a few miles from the site of the Democratic National Convention, Rogers and other students passed the day learning the increasingly high-tech world of auto repair.

The students represent a mix of backgrounds and experiences; all have come to the center searching for an entry point, a way to be a part of the prosperity discussed by convention speakers.

In fact, the life of the 7-year-old school coincides with that of the Clinton administration. But much has changed since it began as a mostly privately funded program, according to Alfred N. Howard, the center's director.

"I know they say unemployment is down," Howard said, "But when they say unemployment is down they're mixing and matching names and numbers.

"We're seeing a larger number of semiskilled and skilled people coming in," Howard said. Workers laid off from high-paying jobs often enter the program, as do those who have cobbled a living together from two or three part-time jobs, Howard said.

That's different from the first years of the program, when Howard saw more of the "hard-core unemployed," such as dropouts and former drug addicts.

According to a recent report by the pro-labor research group Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, poverty in Los Angeles is worse than it was in 1990.

Since the mid-1990s, Los Angeles has added 384,000 jobs and cut the unemployment rate from 9.8% in 1993 to a low of less than 6% in 2000. But in the 1990s the proportion of poor families, most of them working at minimum- or low-wage jobs, rose from 36% to 43% of the population in Los Angeles.

Silas Peterson, 33, has seen both prosperity and weak job prospects. "My family in California is doing better," Williams said. "It's just me. I got to get my act together. I do see opportunity. My sister inspires me, she just bought a house. She has her master's and she's working on her PhD. If she can do it, I know I can do it."

Peterson saw a job poster at a hamburger stand offering $8 an hour. But his sights are higher: a wage that he can actually live on. After finishing the center's program, he plans to continue his training and eventually become a smog check technician, possibly pulling in up to $80,000 a year, he said.

Meanwhile, he says he has little time to consider presidential candidates. A self-described "progressive liberal," Williams comes from a "voting family," but he is not nearly as passionate.

"I always thought that my life would not change whether a Democrat was in office or a Republican was in office. Recently I've been more focused on getting myself together."

Continuous training, says Mark Escartin, will be the key to stability. "When I first got out of school, if you were able-bodied you could find work anywhere," he said.

At 42, he has made three career changes, rising and falling with broader economic trends. Escartin started his working life repairing cars after finishing a two-year community college program. "I used to be a full-service gas station attendant, remember those ?" he said. He lost that job when his station became a no-service mini-mart.

Escartin's best job was installing fiber-optic lines for an AT&T unit in the early 1990s, for which he was paid $14 an hour with benefits. He lost that job when his division was split from the corporation, then went to work for a local cable company, he said. The switch cost him his benefits and cut his pay to $9 an hour.

He lost that job when the cable company was acquired by another corporation. Most recently, Escartin worked as a part-time census-taker.

Now he hopes to return to his first line of work, auto repair.

A registered Republican, Escartin said he is unsure whom he will vote for, since he feels neither of the major parties is confronting issues important to workers like him. "There has to be more inclusion of the little guy. We don't have a plank in their platforms," he said, adding that he might vote for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader.

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