The Star-Ledger

'Wheels' Revs Up Young Mechanics

Program helps students buy cars to get to class, jobs

The Star-Ledger — Thursday, August 18, 2005

Star-Ledger Staff

Ronald Dukes is eager to start an apprenticeship program for future car mechanics that he was accepted into earlier this year.

A recent Academy High School graduate, the Newark teen isn't worried about juggling school with a 40-hour work week, or doing well in the program. His love of cars will carry him through, he said, and the time is worth the $15,000 he will otherwise spend for school.

But if he is going to achieve his dream, there is one crucial piece missing: a car.

"I have to be able to get there," Dukes said of his twice-weekly trips from Newark to Scotch Plains for classes.

To simplify the car-buying process for Dukes and his classmates, New Jersey Citizen Action created the "Wheels in Motion" program, giving them access to below-market car loans, discounted insurance and six hours of free financial training.

The program was introduced yesterday during a press conference at the Strauss Discount Auto store on Springfield Avenue, where Dukes will work come September.

Two years ago, Local 108 of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union began the apprenticeship program to help youths transition out of school and into jobs in the community, said Charles Hall, the organization's president.

"There is a shortage of young people coming into the field, and not everyone is going to college," he said. "There is nothing wrong with having a trade that will offer a good-paying job and a way into the middle class."

The union partnered with Strauss Discount Auto and Union County Vocational and Technical Schools to provide both on-the-job and classroom training for the 25 students currently in the two-year program. It is funded in part by a state Department of Labor grant, he said.

Because kids are placed all over – North Plainfield, Hillside, Neptune, Middletown and Bloomfield – some were unable to make it to work on time, or had to skip classes because of commuting obstacles, said Ira Stern, the union's program coordinator.

"We had a kid walking from Elizabeth to a shop in Linden and then to classes in Scotch Plains," he said. "He had to drop out."

As more kids left the program, they approached Citizen Action, Stern said.

Ritchie Oliver, Strauss Automotive's director of training, said the program is key because there is a shortage of qualified car technicians.

"We are trying to grow our work force and want to do so with people from the community," he said.

While the discounted car loan and insurance are key, the personal finance classes are also important, said Leila Amirhamzeh of Citizen Action. The students have to finish the classes before becoming eligible for Wheels in Motion.

"This is about teaching basic life skills beyond how to get to and from work," she said, listing banking and credit courses the students will take.

Though pleased that PNC Bank and Highpoint Auto Insurance are participating in the program, Citizen Action is still looking for car suppliers, said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, the organization's executive director.

"We want to get them access to a car, from some group like United Way that will make cars available for them to buy," she said.

She is working on partnerships with Verizon and Public Service Electric & Gas.

The ultimate goal is to expand the program so other low-wage earners with transportation problems have a way to and from work, Salowe-Kaye said.

But Dukes' problem is solved. While attending the press conference, someone offered to sell him a used car. He's looking forward to sprucing it up.

"This is an amazing opportunity," he said. "I feel blessed."

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