Lego Job Hopefuls Hit the Bricks

 

In Santa Ana, 40 applicants get a pile of pieces and a time limit
as the Carlsbad theme park searches for a model builder.

 

By Kimi Yoshino

Times Staff Writer

 

Nervous job applicants file into the room, counting thousands of plastic Lego bricks.

 

They are advised not to get carried away with one color or they might run out. They are told not to change their minds halfway through a project. The clock, after all, is ticking.

 

Forty-five minutes. Two-thousand bricks. Think animals. Start building.

 

Grown men - and a few women - sit at tables, fumbling through piles of multicolored Lego bricks. They steal peeks at someone else's work, then focus hard on their own creation. A penguin here, a scorpion there. The barest forms begin to take shape.

 

It's the final day of Legoland's nationwide search to add a new member to its elite Master Model Builder team, the team responsible for conceiving, designing and building models at its Carlsbad theme park.

 

"There is no other place on earth where they can have a job like this," said Legoland spokeswoman Stacy Slingerland. This is no contest, she said. This is an audition, like a Hollywood casting call.

 

The 40 contestants - er, applicants - nervously pass time in a waiting room at the Orange County campus of the Art Institute of California. They are surrounded by tables topped with Lego sculptures: pandas, a yellow inchworm, a Victorian house, a Mona Lisa mosaic, a human-shaped head.

 

Some Lego Master Builder wannabes are chatting. Some are quietly warming up their imaginations. Pre-competition strategy varies.

 

They are ushered into a classroom, where as many as six at a time work at small tables. Starting times are marked on a chalkboard. They dump blue bins of Lego bricks onto the table around them. Their canvas is a green, plastic Lego mat.

 

The room is quiet, except for sounds of clicking plastic and the occasional hushed instructions given to each new pair. TV crews and photographers are shooting away. The Lego aficionados, who all seem to know that the plural of Lego is Lego, no s, are unfazed by the attention. They are obsessing on their "love of the brick."

 

"I love Lego, but I actually haven't built something in, who knows, 10 years," admitted freelance Web designer Michael Bond, 43, of Westminster. "I purposefully did nothing to prepare. I'm going with a clean slate and letting it flow."

 

Orange Coast College student James Branham, 19, said his mom forced him to he could practice Tuesday night.

 

Then there are the serious junkies - people like Jonathan Hunter, whose license plate reads "LEGOGH."

 

"Get it?" asked Hunter, 34. "Like Van Gogh, the artist?"

 

Hunter means business. The San Clemente resident took a day off from his job as sales and marketing manager for ProShot Golf to apply for the Master Model Builder position.

 

"Playing with Lego for a living - that's the only way to go," Hunter said.

 

Greg Corn, 20, of Carlsbad has an entire room dedicated to Lego. Every container - ice chests, even - are filled with the tiny bricks. Three times, Corn has tried to make the final Master Model Builder cut.

 

He competed in San Diego but didn't make it. On Monday, he was at the build-off in Los Angeles but wasn't called back. On Wednesday, in Santa Ana, he said, "Third time's the charm. I want the job."

 

This time, he prevailed. Corn and Hunter were among four finalists to come out of the Orange County build-off. Bruce Lowell of Reseda and Matthew Watkins of Vista were also invited back.

 

The Legoland team has visited nine cities since mid-November in its hunt for a master builder. This "competency screening" is the first step. About 25 lucky applicants - winnowed down from about 500 - will head to Legoland this month for the final competition, which includes more tests, an intensive interview and a second build-off.

 

One of them is Manhattan attorney Nathan Sawaya, 30, who says he's willing to give up his six-figure salary as a lawyer. If tapped for the job, he'd make, well, a modest 30,000 and be forced to move to San Diego. But he'd have plenty of plastic.

 

"There aren't that many opportunities like this – ever," Sawaya said.

 

He admits that the financial transition would be a little tough. Then again, he'd probably get a discount employee discount on the $6,000 to $7,000 he usually spends each year on bricks.

 

Since finding out he was a finalist after the New York competition in November, Sawaya said, he has been trying to build daily, but it's hard to prepare when the construction theme is kept secret until the audition begins.

 

“I go into this with eyes wide open,” he said. “This has been a fun adventure so far. But if it doesn’t work out, I still have a job in New York.”

 

CAPTION: WILL IT FLY? A penguin built by James Branham, 19. Each participant was given 2,000 bricks and 45 minutes.