Education

At Sweeney, Careers Waiting for Auto Tech Students

BOARDMAN, Ohio – Lucas Hernandez began working on cars at a young age. A senior at Mahoning County Career & Technical Center, he didn’t enjoy reading or books much, he acknowledged. He loved the “The Fast and the Furious” films and was fascinated with how cars worked, and often helped his father out working on his car.

“I didn’t really feel like college was my thing. I’m more hands-on,” the Campbell native said.

Hernandez is already on a career path in the automotive service industry. He started as car porter in March at Sweeney Chevrolet and three weeks ago began working in the dealership’s quick lube lane.

Hernandez was among about 30 juniors and seniors in MCCTC’s automotive technician class who toured the dealership Wednesday for a career outlook day to learn about job openings and careers, and hear about a partnership between the Sweeney dealerships and Stark State College in North Canton.

“It’s a good time to be in our position because the sky is the limit,” said Chris Rutledge, quick service manager. “There are opportunities with a big dealership like this.”

The average age of an auto technician at Sweeney is 40, noted Alexa Sweeney Blackann, vice president of Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC. “If we don’t talk to young people like you on a day like today, we’re not going to have anybody to help us service cars in the future,” she told the visiting students.

Jerry Streb, shop foreman, praised working in any dealership, but Sweeney in particular, as “a good place to work.” Streb has been with the dealership since 1974 and started out prepping new cars for the lot.

“It’s a very rewarding and very fulfilling career,” he said. “It feels good when you finally fix a car, especially when it’s a hard problem.”

He highlighted several career options, including positions in parts, sales, service and the front office.

“You’re making a very wise decision entering this field. It is a wide-open field,” said Jason Bumgardner, parts director. “We’re starved for kids like yourselves to come in.”

Bumgardner advised the students that one of the best things that have is a clean driving record. “If you have points on your license or if you lose your license, we can’t insure you,” he warned. “It’s very tough to employ you.” He also advised them that the dealership does drug screening.

“There’s a lot of opportunity,” affirmed Nick Denaikis, a General Motors-certified master technician. Though he did not say how much he made, he said his career was “very lucrative.” Individuals can earn more money by becoming a line technician and learning “to do anything that comes through the door,” he added.

“It’s not a banker’s hours job. You’re going to work certain Saturdays. You’re going to work when there’s opportunity in a high-volume dealership like this,” he cautioned.

Job candidates will start off in the quick lube department, Denaikis said. Those who show initiative and display good work habits have the opportunity to advance and potentially be sent to school for further training.

Two years ago, Sweeney began its partnership with Stark State College. Each year, the dealership puts three candidates through the two-year automotive technology program there. The dealership covers the tuition and pays the participating students for hours worked at the dealership as well as the time spent in the classroom.

Students work with a dedicated mentor at the dealership, Blackann said. They also sign a contract to complete the program, and instructors at the college provide the dealership with updates regarding whether the students are attending their classes.

The dealership employs three graduates of the program.

Drake Pondillo, who graduated from MCCTC three years ago, had been working at Sweeney for six months when Blackann offered for him to attend the two-year program.

“It’s like MCCTC but it’s expanded,” Pondillo said. “It’s awesome.”

He went from changing oil to working on engines, and is now learning to work on transmissions.

“It’s all in what you put into it,” Rutledge acknowledged. “If you look at it as a job, then that’s what it’s going to be. If you look at it as a career, we’re going to give you the opportunity to make that a career.”

Elizabeth Daniel of Sebring, an MCCTC senior, said she began helping her father work on cars when she was in eighth grade. Like Hernandez, cars were always something that interested her, which led her to the technical center program.

“I just wanted a career that I could make a good living at,” she said.

Her instructor, Mark Silvestri, showed her that there were “many opportunities in the field. She has gone through job shadows at several dealerships, and while she doesn’t rule out servicing vehicles she acknowledged that a job as a service writer might be a better fit for her in the long term.

MCCTC recently launched an adult automotive tech program, Silvestri said. “So if they don’t come here or go to Stark, I’ve got pathways waiting,” he said.

Having a pipeline of trained technicians is especially important not only because of an anticipated shortage in the next decade, but also because of initiatives announced by General Motors CEO Mary Barra such as electric fleets and autonomous vehicles, Blackann said. Technicians need to be trained “pretty exceptionally” to be able to work on such vehicles, she said.

“We’re investing in our future,” she said.

Pictured: Alexa Sweeney Blackann, vice president of Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC, led a tour of the Chevy dealership for MCCTC students highlighting what jobs are available.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.