Michelle Primm (above) of the Cascade Auto Group speaks to students at Cuyahoga Community Colleges western campus in Parma, Ohio. (Photos By Jamie-Andrea Yanak/Associated Press)
PARMA, Ohio -- Sitting front and center in her college marketing class, Kim Smith took copious notes as a woman lectured about the importance of customer satisfaction and the lure of lucrative sales.
The guest at Cuyahoga Community College's western campus, local
``What you may have thought of as your local neighborhood car dealership is actually a huge industry," Primm told the class at the college also known as Tri-C. ``There are a ton of jobs: accounting, management, technical. It can be a lifelong, very rewarding career."
Primm is a member of the Greater Cleveland Automobile Dealers Association, which has launched an internship program as part of a nationwide recruiting effort for an industry overflowing with job openings.
The National Automobile Dealers Association estimates that more than 100,000 jobs are available at 20,000 dealerships across the nation, chairman William Bradshaw said.
That figure was supported by a January survey of 657 new-car dealers commissioned by McLean, Va.-based Automotive Retailing Today, a coalition of major auto manufacturers and dealers. It found that there are an estimated 105,000 openings in various positions, including sales, management, administration, and service, mostly in the South and Midwest.
Bradshaw said dealerships have job openings for several reasons: sales have increased; mechanic work now requires more computer skills; financing auto loans has become an expected service; and larger dealerships open long hours seven days a week need more administrative and management employees.
Some positions, such as accounting or marketing, may require a college degree, but most, including sales and management, don't. A high school diploma, some technical training, and a desire to work from the bottom up are all that are required, dealers say.
Sales jobs can bring in six figures depending on commission (the industry average for sales is $43,000 a year, according to the dealers' association), and technicians or painters can earn between $70,000 and $100,000 a year at a busy location. Financing, accounting, marketing, and other office jobs typically pay around $50,000 a year, Bradshaw said.
His 19,000-member group is expanding a program this fall in which high school students and guidance counselors visit dealerships to learn about careers. The Cleveland association is focusing marketing and other business students at community colleges. Dealers in Texas and Florida are spending this summer scouring shopping malls in search of women to bring into the business.
Tri-C marketing sophomore Jennifer Rosado, 20, spent eight weeks working at Bob Gillingham
One day involved helping a buyer fill out paperwork, another day was spent writing a script for a radio commercial. The biggest challenge: complicated sales forecasting.
``You learn a lot of real-world skills instead of just sitting in the classroom," she said.
Primm's pitch also won over the 19-year-old Smith, who did an internship with Primm at her Cuyahoga Falls dealership near Akron and was hired to work this summer as a cashier.
``I never thought that I would work in this field but I have recently realized that there is so much more to selling cars than the stogie-smoking, cheap-plaid-suit-wearing old man trying to force you to buy a car," Smith said. ``This has definitely opened up new opportunities for me."
Breaking stereotypes is a major part of the industry's effort, said Bradshaw, who owns several dealerships in South Carolina after starting as an office manager at a lot 35 years ago with no money and no experience.
``There's a stigma that we've got to break through, that mechanic stigma that it's greasy or that it's not a great career path," he said.
At the same time, high-school guidance counselors and parents focused on college have shied away from pushing students into auto careers because they wrongly think it's a career that doesn't pay well, Bradshaw said.
The earning power available at dealerships is especially noteworthy in areas like Cleveland, where high-paying factory jobs with benefits have declined over the last couple of decades, said Christopher Scott, associate dean of business, math, and technology at Tri-C.
Bradshaw said that's a main selling point for the industry.
``The manufacturers are downsizing; they're laying off people, but just about every dealership in the country has job openings," he said. ``These are jobs that have good benefits, good working environments and good career paths."