Kelly Wadlinger's chosen career was to watch grass grow -- literally.
She was a biology major planning to get a Ph.D. Then she did an internship in a plant-genetics laboratory.
"Boring!" Wadlinger says. "It was literally watching a little plant grow. The overall process is cool, but I didn't think it was for me. I need to be around people more."
Wadlinger, 29, is around people a lot now as sales manager at Faulkner Fiat of Harrisburg in Harrisburg, Pa. The Shippensburg University graduate took a job in the auto industry in 2006 while preparing for another career -- and has never looked back.
"You can have a great career," Wadlinger says. "It's not just turning wrenches and selling cars and wearing cheesy plaid suits."
Wadlinger's career path is one that dealers want to make more common. As unemployment remains high, many large dealership groups are becoming more picky in hiring. Increasingly they are targeting college-educated people such as Wadlinger -- and aiming to keep them for a long time.
Dealership groups are more aggressive about visiting college campuses and hosting job fairs than they were five years ago. They want to attract fresh college graduates who can't find jobs in their chosen fields. They also seek experienced workers outside auto retailing who lost jobs in the recession.
The strategy is tilting the mix of new management-track hires at Asbury Automotive Group of Duluth, Ga. Ninety percent of Asbury's manager-in-training hires were found at campus job fairs, says Ken Jackson, the group's human resources director.
But while it may be easier to attract college grads in tough economic times, keeping them is another matter. Experts say that dealers need to offer new recruits a career path and a pay plan that shows a long-term commitment to them.
"What we're finding is that talk is cheap about promotion opportunities. What dealers really need to do is put their money where their mouth is," says Timothy Gilbert, chairman of the automotive marketing department and management at Northwood University in West Palm Beach, Fla. "They have to put something in the pot to keep you there a little longer while you're progressing through the organizational chain."
Large dealership groups with multiple stores can more easily plot out career paths than mom-and-pop dealerships, Gilbert says. But he adds that any good dealership, regardless of size, can create a pay system and career path to keep its best workers.
New hires at AutoNation Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., can look forward to careers in which they can earn six figures in management or in sales if they excel at sales, says Julie Staub, the group's vice president of human resources.
"The income potential first year is easily in the $30,000 to $40,000 in a sales environment with potential to grow from there," Staub says.
AutoNation, the nation's largest dealership group, also tries to help young hires manage their schedules to balance work and personal life, Staub says.
"This industry, not just AutoNation, is more of a 60 to 70 [hour]-ish a week," she says. "That's not going to fly with college grads. They want balance."