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Flashy Cars, and the Careers Shine Too

October 31, 2003|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

The automotive industry, struggling to find qualified mechanics, sales people and managers because of the demise of high school auto shop programs, thinks it has identified the perfect job fair: car shows.

At the California International Auto Show, at the Anaheim Convention Center through Sunday, a sprawling display of industry training programs is waylaying attendees who might never have expected to find a career amid the flashy sports cars and sleek sedans.

Such exhibits help to erase the stigma of those trades and inform people about the potential for six-figure salaries and the strong job market in the auto industry, said Todd H. Leutheuser, executive director of the Southland Motor Car Dealers Assn.

"Technicians aren't unskilled grease monkeys, and salespeople aren't pushy con men," he said. "These are good jobs with good salaries."

The automotive career display includes information on auto tech programs at five Southern California community colleges, the nation's only bachelor's degree sequence in car dealer management and an Orange County training course for aspiring salespeople.

At last year's show, the community colleges received 3,000 inquiries about their programs, said Frank Vega, a Cerritos College automotive instructor who is staffing the technician program booth this year as well.

"This year all the programs are full," Vega said, "so evidently it worked."

Vega, who followed in his father's footsteps and runs a repair shop in Santa Ana, earned his auto technician degree from Cerritos College. Vega went on to a four-year university and earned an advanced degree.

Training programs such as Cerritos' are essential because cars have become so technologically advanced, Vega said. The old-fashioned way of learning the trade -- simply observing experienced mechanics make repairs -- doesn't work anymore, he said.

"Cars don't break down as often as they used to, but when they do there tends to be some complex, computer-based problem you couldn't understand without professional training," he said.

Information at the auto show also covers Michigan's Northwood University, the nation's only institution where students can earn a four-year degree in automotive marketing and management. About 400 students graduate from the program each year, said Jennifer Redman, a development director for the Northwood satellite campus in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Each month, about 100 car salespeople complete the four-day automotive sales and marketing program at National University's Costa Mesa campus.

Gene Malboeuf, 21, of Downey heard about the Cerritos College program from friends and is now in his second year of training to repair DaimlerChrysler vehicles. He said car shows would be the best place to find potential auto industry workers.

"If someone likes cars, nice ones will draw them like magnets," Malboeuf said while taking a break from a Thursday afternoon tuneup class. "You put those out somewhere and tell people the real story about how good it is to be a mechanic, and you're going to fill up this industry."

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