Make a Lasting Impact—Give the New Generation a Successful Start

SEMA Member News—November/December 2014

Make a Lasting Impact—Give the New Generation a Successful Start

SEMA President and CEO Chris Kersting (front row, sixth from left) posed with students at a Scholarship Winners Pit Stop during the 2013 SEMA Show
SEMA President and CEO Chris Kersting (front row, sixth from left) posed with students at a Scholarship Winners Pit Stop during the 2013 SEMA Show.

The graying of the automotive specialty-equipment market is a theme that is currently receiving attention from SEMA’s Board of Directors, and Chair-Elect Doug Evans is especially passionate about the topic. He believes that there are two important reasons to pull young people into the industry: cultivating a new generation of consumer and ensuring the future success of the market.

“The scholarship program and loan-forgiveness program are just a natural, easy extension of that thought process,” Evans said. “If you can help people in the industry get their education or unburden themselves from debt having done so, it allows them to be more productive, get fully engaged and make a contribution to the industry.”

A program the association provides to this end is the SEMA Memorial Scholarship Fund, which gives resources to students pursuing careers in the automotive industry in fields ranging from accounting to manufacturing. Students who meet the criteria are eligible to apply for awards from $2,000 to $3,000, with $5,000 going to the top individual.

As a recent recipient of a SEMA scholarship, Kaj Niegmann understands the long-term impact of the program. Niegmann is in his senior year as an industrial-design student at the Georgia Institute of Technology and works full time as the lead designer for Material6 and Spec.Dock, manufacturers of iPhone accessories. Niegmann is currently working to develop an integrated car dock.

“My favorite part of my job is watching something that may be a sketch on a napkin turn into a product to ship out,” he said. “It’s just really cool to take this idea and put it into people’s hands.”

Niegmann enjoys the fast-paced product-development process of the automotive accessory world and said that the scholarship he received will allow him to continue focusing on the work he loves.

“I’m working to pay for my tuition, so just getting that scholarship lets me focus on going to school or going to work, and it takes some of the pressure off of thinking about how much money I owe,” he explained.

Troy Spratling, professor of automotive technology at Brigham Young University-Idaho, was excited to learn that one of his students received a scholarship for this school year. He believes that scholarships serve two key functions: building the confidence of students and affording them educational opportunities.

“We try to encourage avoiding student loans if possible,” he said, “but that’s getting harder as costs go up and wages seem to stay where they were.”

Mark DeKoster is an associate professor of automotive management at Ferris State University and agrees with Spratling’s analysis. He added that sharing the recipients’ stories provides positive examples of how hard work and industry knowledge can pay off for other students. This year, two of DeKoster’s students were awarded $3,000 scholarships.

SEMA also recognizes another need of many recent graduates: paying down student loans. The loan-forgiveness program is dedicated to that goal, assisting employees of member companies with $2,000 awards to pay down outstanding student loans. Kirstin Stone of TurbosmartUSA received two such awards.

“When I graduated from my four-year university, I was sitting right at about $75,000 in debt,” Stone said. “So $4,000 at this point is a good chunk of that, and I’ve been really appreciative. The first award that I got actually paid off the last of one of my student loans and then enabled me to partake in the hobby side of the industry a little more, which certainly has its own valuable connections.”

So what is the takeaway for SEMA members? Certainly encouraging colleagues or students to apply for scholarships or loan-forgiveness awards is part of it. But a few other things can be done to make a difference, according to Evans. His first suggestion is to write a contribution check to the Scholarship Fund.

“The other way that people can get involved is to open their doors to internship programs,” he said. “We just did an internship program for a young man, and he got college credit for working for us for the summer, so that’s just like tuition reimbursement. A lot of internship programs offer credits, and an internship gives the student practical job experience, a taste of the industry and a reason to come back and work for us full time when he or she graduates.”

The application period for both the scholarship and loan-forgiveness awards runs from November 3, 2014, to March 27, 2015. For more information, visit