Auto specialties looking for workers

Melissa Preddy
Car Culture

A stroll through a marquee car show like Autorama stirs up a lot of feelings, including envy. And not only envy of those guttural engines or glossy paint jobs, or for what it must feel like behind the wheel of those supercharged dragsters.

The thought also springs to mind, “Why can’t I make a living doing something cool like this?”

To be sure, many if not most Autorama exhibitors have day jobs, as well. But the specialty automotive realm, from performance sports cars to restored hot rods and classics to replica building, does spawn quite a few interesting and decently paid positions. For employees disenchanted with their 9-to-5 grind, or young people looking for alternatives to liberal arts college, a career working with adrenaline-inducing vehicles might not be too far out of reach.

That’s one reason why Bob Millard started Career Day eight years ago at Autorama. Millard is general manager of the International Show Car Association, the sanctioning body for judging car-show exhibitions. He says he wanted to emulate a similar effort at the North American International Auto Show.

“I thought, ‘What a great idea,’ ” he recalls. “The mission is to keep kids in school and let them know there are opportunities out there for them.” In just a few years he’s grown the project from a notion to a program that sends more than 17,000 high-school and community college youth to shows in 20 markets nationwide.

“This year we expect 3,000 in Detroit,” Millard said. Kids — who must come in school-sponsored, chaperoned groups — pay $10 apiece to attend brief talks by industry insiders and for all-weekend access to the show.

“We want to show them there is demand out there for them in at least 50 different auto-related fields,” said Millard. “To be fair, probably 90 percent of the jobs are in the general trade — dealerships and traditional repair centers.

“But I have friends in hot rod shops all over the country, and they too tell me they need workers very badly. The demand is there.”

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t narrow its occupational outlook quite to the hot-rod arena, but its statistics for jobs in auto body work, engine repair and related fields show they are growing at least as fast as average and mean pay is about $42,000 a year.

“We’re always looking for machinists, mechanics and techs,” said Ken Lingenfelter, owner of Brighton-based Lingenfelter Performance Engineering, which offers an array of aftermarket services and parts to the high-performance car enthusiast.

It was his firm’s customized Corvette that was famously raced against a Navy F-18 fighter jet in 0-60 and quarter-mile sprints; the YouTube videos are worth a watch. I won’t spoil you on which vehicle won but the 800-hp ’Vette fared pretty well at 0-60 in less than two seconds. And if tuning a street car to duel with a Blue Angel sounds better than a trudge to an office cubicle, well, the careers are out there for those willing to work at it.

“A lot of things may be computerized these days but we still need people who know how to put things together and take them apart,” Lingenfelter said. “Depending on the job, a college degree often isn’t necessary. We’re looking for what skills people have.”

Specialists like an expert “body person,” painter or mechanic can earn a good bit more than the national average. Walter Woldt, owner of Region Motors in Hebron, Indiana, was just advertising online for a body technician and hot-rod builder for his auto restoration shop.

“There is a dearth of qualified people out there,” said Woldt. “A good high-end paint tech will earn upward of $50,000-$60,000.”

Not right out of school, he cautions, and Lingenfelter agreed. Most would-be hot rod specialists will have to put in a little time honing their craft at ordinary chain repair shops or in dealer service bays. But if the passion and talent are there, so are the jobs.

“They need to take it seriously,” Woldt said. “Perfectionists tend to do well in this business.”

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via