Commentary

To my relief, I saw no headless people in the audience.

Not that I really expected to see anyone like that. But Mark Schienberg had told the gathering, “A lot of people here today put their heads on the line for this.”

He was speaking at a fifth-anniversary gathering of the $28 million Center for Automotive Education and Training in Queens, NY.

The Greater New York Automobile Dealers Assn. conceived of and built the place to train students for dealership work, particularly in the art and science of fixing modern cars.

Association President Schienberg generously spreads the credit around. But he deserves the most for making a dream a reality.

Asked to speak at the anniversary event, I recalled how I wrote a story in 1999 about the association’s bold plans to build a local facility for training certified auto technicians.

I remember thinking it was a great idea, but wondering if they could pull it off. Retrospectively, I underestimated the determination of New Yorkers in general and New York dealers in particular.

The association put a lot of its own money into the project, but it needed public help, too. In asking for government grants and tax breaks, the dealer group pitched a win-win-win case.

The association would win because its dealer members would get more qualified mechanics at a time when the U.S. Department of Labor estimated a shortage of 60,000 skilled auto technicians nationwide.

The students would win because the training would land them in good-paying jobs.

Government would win because those students would become productive, tax-paying members of society.

It all made sense. And it didn’t hurt that the association had connections, such as U.S. Congressman Gary Ackerman. When he owned a Queens newspaper, Schienberg was one of his paper carriers, and a precocious one.

“Mark wasn’t just a paperboy,” Ackerman says. “He was an executive paperboy.”

Quips Schienberg: “I think he still owes me some money.”

After years of planning and fundraising, the center was finally built. I attended the opening ceremonies. The place didn’t meet my expectations. (Dramatic pause here.) It exceeded them.

The schooling areas and automotive-service equipment are most modern. The overall architectural design is upscale business professional, because “we want the students to feel professional,” association spokesman Nick Crispe tells me.

In a partnership, Lincoln Technical Institute trains the students. They are a new breed of technicians working on cars with advanced technologies, such as electric and hybrid plug-in powertrains.

“Years ago, you could pretty much fix a car in your driveway, if you were so inclined, but those days are gone,” says Association Chairman Lou Giordano.

Some of the most poignant speeches during the anniversary gathering came from past and present students.

Kimberly Kinscy recalls entering the program with a goal of working on Mercedes-Benz vehicles. When asked for a back-up choice, she replied “Mercedes-Benz.” She now works at Helms Brothers Mercedes-Benz, a local dealership.

Patricio Gonzalez steps up to say a few words, holding a microphone in one hand and cradling his toddler daughter with the other.

He is a U.S. Marine veteran who showed much discipline throughout the 13-month auto-tech program. He scored a 4.0 grade-point average and perfect attendance.

Graduate Guillermo Larregui now is a technician at Rallye BMW in Westbury, NY. It was a late career move. He had served as a New York City policeman for 20 years.

But he always loved working on cars. So he swapped his gun for a wrench.

“I was interested in taking a hobby and turning it into a profession,” he says. It worked out well. “I got my dream job.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com