Two days before General Motors filed for bankruptcy last week, Brandon Cargill rummaged under the hood of a 2008 Chevy Cobalt, unfastening the last of the bolts that hold the four-cylinder engine to the frame.
The lift that suspends the engine rested squarely on two Yellow Pages mashed by the weight of the engine they support.
"That is the new GM safety regulation," joked Cargill as he pointed to the pair of phone books, "due to budget cuts."
Cargill, 21, grew up working on ATVs, motorcycles, go-carts and "anything with a motor, really." Now, decked out in his GM coveralls, he is performing a routine transmission change at Portland Community College's General Motors Automotive Service Education Program at the Sylvania campus. The PCC program has produced six to nine qualified GM technicians a year since 1985, making it the longest-running—and also the largest—automotive training program in Oregon.
After 1 1/2 years of study, Cargill is completing his last in-class term. When he started during a stronger economy in 2007, he had hopes of quickly finding a job that can pay as much as $18 an hour in the first year.
Now, he is a very qualified technician entering a very uneasy automotive industry. In addition to the bankruptcy, GM's sales have dropped 30 percent over last year, financing for new vehicles is tight and GM stock is down so much it was kicked off the Dow Jones Industrial list.
"I have a little nervousness," says Cargill, still confident in the merits of the PCC program. "But there is confidence there, too, as far as knowing you can go out and do this wherever."
Scott Morgan, a PCC instructor in this program for three years, says the instruction only succeeds as a co-op among GM, PCC and the dealers themselves.
"GM supplies the vehicles, tools and some curriculum material," says Morgan. "PCC supplies the facilities and the instructor."
But two weeks ago, GM sent "no franchise renewal" notices to an unknown number of dealers in Oregon among 2,600 nationwide, telling them their contracts won't be renewed after 2010.
That's a problem, because to complete the $6,000-a-year, two-year PCC program, students must spend every other term in the field at a dealership, getting hands-on experience and learning from working professionals. Now, students will have a tougher time getting placements.
And other uncertainties loom for those who complete the PCC program.
GM plans to ditch its Saab, Saturn, Hummer and Pontiac brands, reducing how much work is out there for program graduates.
Mike Neldon, a student in the program for almost a year, has been looking for a placement since December. Because dealerships are not hiring, Neldon has tried independent shops. So far, still no luck.
"Lately, people have been pretty rude about it," says Neldon, 19. "Some people say come back later, others snub me and say they are not hiring."
Morgan believes the next 30 to 60 days will resolve much of the uncertainty around GM, prompting dealers that survived the cuts to start hiring again.
In the meantime, the program is doing its best to adapt to a new GM business model that is still largely undefined. Morgan believes GM will be smaller, leaner and more competitive. And he is working on a hybrid-specific program that will launch this summer.
And despite the grim news at GM, interest in the program has stayed consistent, as it often does in tough economic times for community colleges that offer career re-training. Morgan reports getting more cold calls than normal for the program and has plenty of prospective students.
"Is there hope in this?" he asks. "Yes, absolutely."