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Trade School Odometer Hits 1,000

Education: Center for auto-repair training has helped 1,000 people begin a career. Unlike other post-riot efforts, it's going strong.

June 28, 2002|PETER Y. HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was, at its core, a trade school commencement, a final hurrah for graduates ready to start $9-an-hour jobs at auto repair shops. But in Central Los Angeles 10 years after the riots, the ceremony was enough to draw two former Cabinet members from both parties--Alexis Herman, labor secretary in the Clinton administration, and Jack Kemp, housing secretary under former President Bush and 1996 vice presidential candidate--as well as television news cameras and a coterie of local politicians.

The Los Angeles Urban League Automotive Training Center on Thursday handed out certificates to 92 men and four women who completed free training programs in auto maintenance. With that group of graduates, the center has now trained 1,000 students since it opened in April 1993 as a partnership of the Urban League and Toyota to help Los Angeles recover from the 1992 riots.

That record of success aside, the South Crenshaw Boulevard center is a magnet for the media and politicians for another reason: It is a rare example of a post-1992 riot recovery program that met its goals and still exists.

In the decade after the riots, programs such as the corporate-led Rebuild L.A. were criticized for failing to deliver on lofty promises of inner-city jobs and business growth.

Addressing the graduates, Los Angeles Urban League President John Mack noted that "a lot of people made promises [after the riots].... They came in and said they wanted to save South Central ... then they went away." But "Toyota kept its promise and stayed," he said.

The program targets unemployed or underemployed workers and provides training for up to 12 weeks in general maintenance, tuneups, and brake and suspension work.

Former Labor Secretary Herman told the graduates the entry-level jobs they would start will "propel you even further" to successful careers. Herman also emphasized the importance of "being responsible in your personal lives."

That theme was repeated by Gary Taylor, a 2000 graduate who entered the training class from a drug rehabilitation program. Taylor, 48, told the graduating class he decided to honestly answer job application questions about drug use and felony convictions, and spoke openly about his past in job interviews. He said that by displaying integrity and self-discipline, he was able to quickly rise from mopping floors to an assistant service manager position at Torrance Toyota.

Despite individual success stories such as Taylor's, even supporters of the training center are aware that Los Angeles needs much more to recover from the loss of high-wage jobs in the area in the last two decades. Recent Census data showed median income in Los Angeles dropped from 1990 to 2000, unlike most other U.S. metropolitan areas.

Former HUD Secretary Kemp said the Urban League program "is not a substitute" for well-paying manufacturing jobs but "is something that should be emulated by other companies."

The city's incomplete recovery from the 1992 riots is obvious just outside the Crenshaw Boulevard academy, built on the site of a former car dealership. A new Sav-On drugstore has come up next to the center, but across the street, another former car dealership has been vacant for years, and the Holiday Bowl, once a thriving center for African American and Japanese American communities, remains abandoned.

Douglas West, senior vice president of Toyota Motor North America, said the company has spent more than $8 million on the training center since it opened. West said the program is useful to the industry because entry-level service jobs are "typically filled by people with virtually no experience," resulting in a costly turnover rate.

Urban League officials said the program has consistently placed 80% of its graduates in jobs at various auto dealers and service shops. In addition to Toyota, other auto manufacturers and dealers have supported the program by supplying equipment or hiring graduates.

The program has been the subject of dozens of news stories and was even visited by Britain's Prince Charles in 1994. It helped Toyota avoid a serious image problem in the early 1990s, said Steven Clemons, who was director of the Japan-America Society of Southern California until 1993.

In addition to anti-Japanese sentiments fueled by large trade deficits, Toyota had faced allegations of racism in its use of parts suppliers, Clemons said. "It got to be nasty for a while, and Toyota to its credit put into place a lot of programs that did good and were good PR."

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