Fed up with working in restaurants, Luis Carlos Puerta dropped in on a job fair in Philadelphia. Designed to recruit Hispanic sales personnel for dealerships, the fair was sponsored by General Motors Corp. and promoted over Univision, a Spanish language TV network.

Puerta, who came to the U.S. in 1980, was part of a 200-person group that attended the fair and one of 70 who expressed enough interest to take the next step: attending a selling skills training class.

Ultimately, he and 13 others accepted job offers with GM dealerships in and around the City of Brotherly Love.

This class is the first in a new GM program, Bilingual Employment Sales Training (BEST). Since the pilot initiative Philadelphia, GM is going nationwide with it. The goal is to recruit hundreds of Hispanic salespersons to work in metro areas with large Spanish-speaking populations.

Puerta, a former waiter, went to work at Bennett Chevrolet in Egg Harbor, NJ, in May 2004. He says about 40% of his customers are Spanish speaking. His ability to converse in their language makes the buying experience easier for them.

He finds the job more interesting and lucrative than his old profession of waiting on tables. It also offers more security. He is shopping for a new house for his family of four.

The BEST program is a stepping-stone to other employment opportunities at dealerships. Liz Santos sold five cars at a dealership, and the manager noted that she skillfully helped customers with financing problems. So she was transferred to the important finance & insurance office.

Now she helps both English- and Spanish-speaking customers understand financing options.

“A dealer's sales staff needs to reflect the community the franchise is located in,” says Edward J. Peper, general marketing manager of Chevrolet.

The soaring importance of the Hispanic market spurred GM to launch BEST, he says. It also is a road to greater prosperity for lower-wage persons.

“A sales person can earn $40,000-$50,000 per year, with average commissions of $500 per vehicle,” Peper says. “The very best sales people can earn more than $125,000 annually.

Philadelphia is the 18th largest Hispanic market in the U.S. Peper says GM plans to expand the job-recruiting program to other major Hispanic markets.

“We hope to recruit at least 100 persons in each city,” he says.

Chicago, the third-largest Hispanic market in the country, was the site of GM's second BEST job fair. The company and its dealers expect to recruit and place at least 200 bilingual sales persons in the Windy City. With BEST, GM seeks to improve service to the 1.8 million Hispanics who comprise 16% of the population in the Chicago metro area.

“We want to take the hassle out of the buying experience for Spanish-speaking customers,” Peper says. “Bilingual sales persons make a difference to car buyers who aren't fluent in English.”

GM's Chicago dealers recruited Hispanic sales candidates with TV, radio and print advertising. They also used direct marketing. There was a jobs booth at the Chicago Auto Show in February. Qualified persons were offered interviews with dealers and attended training seminars.

Job fairs in conjunction with this year's New York International Auto Show gave BEST a boost in the Big Apple. New York with 4.2 million Hispanic residents is the second-largest Hispanic market in the U.S., and GM wants to recruit about 100 bilingual sales personnel there.

“GM wants Hispanics to feel welcome in our showrooms by providing more sales consultants who speak Spanish and understand the community's culture, needs and preferences,” says Gary Cowger, formerly president of GM North America, now vice president-global manufacturing for the auto maker.

BEST seeks to attract bilingual sales persons for long-term careers. At the same time, they are crucial to GM's goal of using sales consultants who understand Hispanic culture and can fluently converse with Spanish-speaking customers who comprise nearly 20% of New York's population.

“The Hispanic market is expected to continue growing in the coming years and GM has a great opportunity to grow with it, but we also have a responsibility to provide job opportunities so that the Hispanic community can prosper with us,” says Felipe Herrera, GM's director of diversity marketing and sales.

GM has aligned itself with Univision to promote BEST over the airwaves and also works with the National Council de la Raza, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to reach out to the Hispanic community.

There is a compelling business case to do so. By 2010, the Hispanic market is forecast to reach $1 trillion annually. It currently is about $580 billion.

Peper says recruiting Hispanic sales personnel is only one part of the outreach program. General Motors Acceptance Corp., GM's financing arm, has designed a bilingual credit application that is easier for Hispanics to fill out.

GM also is promoting Hispanic ownership of dealer franchises.

Out of about 7,000 dealer points, 176 are Hispanic-owned. A total of 420 are minority-owned. In addition, GM is reaching out to the Asian community. The auto maker also seeks to complement the program it has long had for the African-American population.

Houston 1st Among Potential New-Car Buyers

Houston is the top U.S. local market for potential new-vehicle buyers, according to research from Scarborough Research, which tracks shopping and lifestyle patterns of American adults.

Sixteen percent of consumers in Houston reported that they or another member of their household plan to purchase a new vehicle during the next 12 months. Los Angeles, San Antonio, Miami, and New Orleans round out the top local markets for potential buyers, with 15% of consumers in these markets planning to buy a new vehicle soon.

On average, the potential new-vehicle buyers plan to spend more than $24,800 on new car purchases for their household during the next year.

They are 15% more likely than all consumers to have four or more people in their household, and they are 37% more likely to have traveled 2,000 or more miles during the past month.

Grand Rapids, MI (4%), Greenville, SC (6%) and Columbus, OH (7%) rank last among 75 markets surveyed for potential new-auto buyers.