As auto makers lay off thousands of workers, auto dealerships face the opposite problem: a shortage of employees.

“You read about jobs disappearing in the auto industry, but that’s not the case at dealerships; there are plenty of jobs, and we’re having a tough time finding people to fill them,” says Jim Willingham, a 56-year veteran of automotive retailing.

He was a “poor” Baptist minister’s son who had $6 in his pocket when he hitchhiked to California in 1950. He got a job selling Studebakers in Los Angeles.

Willingham went on to become a successful Southern California dealer. He is past chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Assn. He now is active with Automotive Retailing Today (ART).

He laments that an ART-commissioned poll indicates only 2% of surveyed youths show an interest in dealership jobs. That shoots up to 40% when the kids learn of the benefits and rewards of such work. Auto technicians, for example, can earn $40,000 to $100,000 a year.

In an effort to bolster the workforce, ART and others are trying to get young people thinking about dealership careers early on.

“We need to get to these kids as they enter high school,” Willingham says at a California New Motor Vehicle Board industry roundtable in Sacramento.

Chatting with him and David Wilson, another successful West Coast dealer, I suggest one way to cultivate such interest is to take young people on field trips to modern dealerships.

Those visits would be eye-openers for many people who don’t realize how spotless, sophisticated and high tech today’s dealerships are. I note that some service-area floors are so clean, a doctor could do surgery on them.

“Actually, our service technicians wear surgical gloves,” says Wilson.

Is there a mechanic in the house? Yes. But more are needed.

Currently, there are about 100,000 employment openings at U.S. dealerships. Of those, about 37,000 are technician jobs, 42,000 sales positions.

“We need young people to fill good jobs in our industry,” says Willingham. “We desperately need them, and we’ll pay them well.”

At an April 4 dinner featuring a speech by Gov. Arnold Swarzenegger, the California Motor Car Dealers Assn. raises more than $225,000 for auto technician scholarships.

Swarzenegger notes California dealers employ 105,000 people and put $7 billion into the state economy. “That’s staggering,” he says.

Over the next 10 years, California new-car dealers must recruit 3,600 auto technicians each year to keep up with demand.

“Today’s cars require a new breed of automotive technicians who are capable of servicing California’s sophisticated fleet of vehicles,” says Bert Boeckmann, state association chairman and president of Galpin Ford in North Hills. “Repair skills range from knowing how to replace a simple mechanical water pump to reprogramming computer-controlled hybrid systems.”

The job shortage on the sales side partly is because of the rise in vehicle deliveries, Willingham says. When he started in the business 56 years ago, U.S. vehicle sales totaled 6.6 million. Last year, 16.9 million vehicles were sold.

Addressing the employment shortage is an ambitious joint project by the Southland Motor Car Dealers Assn. and Cerritos Community College in southern Los Angeles.

The school currently trains about 1,000 auto technician students a year. The south LA dealer association has helped the school with a $15 million expansion that will include:

  • A West Coast campus of Northwood University offering 4-year degrees in dealership and related studies.
  • Classes for dealership managers, office workers and service advisors.
  • Three daily automotive technician classes for local high school students.
  • The Southland association’s headquarters and space for various meetings.

“It’s the most comprehensive program of its kind that I know of,” says Todd Leutheuser, Southland’s executive director.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com