I Escaped Life in an Auto Plant

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I was listening to NPR and one of the news hosts made a comment that struck me as being nonsense. She was talking about the unfortunate auto plant workers in Michigan who will be displaced from their high-paying jobs. She said (to paraphrase) “all of those uneducated, unskilled workers…” Whoops, she stopped because she realized it was too un-pc to say “uneducated.” Then she corrected herself, mentioning that the plant life is all they’ve ever known and the only option they’ve ever had, so, it’s really not their fault that they are in such a rotten predicament.

What bunk!

I moved out of my parent’s house just one day after my nineteenth birthday and rented a beautiful, old English Tudor, on the cheap, not too far from the Jefferson Avenue Chrysler plant. The house had stained-glass windows and carved ceilings, and I spent my first winter painting the plastered scrolls and ceilings after researching how it should be done. My landlords — a Lebanese couple — loved my painstaking handiwork, and they never raised my rent for the ten years that I lived there because good renters were hard to find in the city. My parents hated that I lived there, in a crime-filled, Detroit neighborhood. But my friends were paying almost twice what I was paying for their one-bedroom, square-box apartments in the suburbs.

My brothers were working on the assembly line making twice the going wage rate for guys their age. I struggled, working two or three jobs to be able to pay the rent and afford a car that would start each morning. I was a full-time short order cook until I was twenty, and I also did freelance art illustration, clothes painting, etc., to help make ends meet. I was also working on obtaining my residential real estate license — a big mistake, but I didn’t know it at the time. No one on either side of my family had ever attended college — this was a foreign concept, even to my parents. My siblings and I were a part of the first generation who acquired high school diplomas because my family had always been hard-working, blue collar, and reasonably poor. I was a talented artist but my parents couldn’t afford my art school dream — even with a partial scholarship — so that was nixed from my future plans.

In those years I was heavily encouraged to “go work in the plant. Apply at GM. Apply at Chrysler. Apply at Ford. You’ll make lots of dough and get mucho benefits! And a pension!” Always, Detroiters stressed that a union, autoworker job meant no college needed and job security. I was told that this was the way to go throughout my teenage and early twenty-something years. In fact, people around me said I’d "be sorry" if I passed up the generous hiring opportunities available. Of course, others were attracted to those jobs because the wage rates were very substantial, especially for individuals without a formal education or marketable skills. At the time, all of the three auto companies were hiring people right off the street. Essentially, you filled out a paper application and got hired. It was that easy. And it was life in the neighborhood where I grew up.

I drove up to that Jefferson Avenue plant twice, to apply for a job, and I sat there in the parking lot in my car and stared. I never went in and applied. My mother was not happy. In fact, she was upset and thought I was being unreasonable. My mother had stayed home to raise all of her six children, but she went to work for an automotive supplier in the assembly plant after her last child became self-sufficient. The price she paid was monotonous work, 70-hour workweeks, and several surgeries for carpal tunnel injuries. I just knew that life in the plants was not the life I desired. I thought it would be long-term sacrifice for some short-term jollies. I was barely able to make ends meet, but I was not willing to sell off my long-term prospects for some big paychecks now.

Taking that kind of job, for many, is a dead end. There is no formal education needed (so it is not sought), no career aspirations, and few alternative options if the job goes away, and I understood that fact. In my gut I knew that I would pay in the long term. I knew I would miss out on bigger challenges and greater prospects. People in my neighborhood seemed to do little in the way of creating alternatives for themselves. They had the same choices I had: the choice between obtaining "more money" now with a routine (and perhaps unstable) future, or taking the time to create other possibilities. Those who took jobs in the auto plants closed the door on a lifetime of opportunities. Don’t get me wrong — there are plenty of good folks in those factories who do great work. Some people see that as their best option, and they make the best of it. But not all of us are made for that life. I knew that I needed to think and grow and be challenged for my paycheck.

Plus, I was young and living poor in the city, and one of my greatest fears was still being poor when I went beyond being young. I feared the prospect of relying on someone or something else and not having significant skills to fall back on. So I continued to struggle, always working multiple jobs, until I made the move to go to business school. I spent seven years getting my 120-credit bachelor’s degree in accounting at Walsh College (a private institution) on a part-time basis while I worked 60+ hours per week in the advertising and printing field. I sacrificed many nights and weekends to the Gods of accounting textbooks. Then I took the CPA exam, and following that, I spent another three years working on my first Master’s degree part-time while I started my new career.

Those workers had options. Every one of them. They had options outside of the plants. There were no phantom powers that forced them to bite the bait and hold on, hoping for the best. They chose the plant career for various reasons — and mostly, there was the financial incentive of being overpaid, though under-skilled, because of the Union’s collective bargaining powers. Their jobs were promised to them for the rest of their working life. They came to rely upon the union to bring them the goodies, year after year, and they rabidly defended the union’s ways because they knew that the union enriched them beyond what they could possibly earn elsewhere in the marketplace. Perhaps many of them never looked into the future and asked, “What if…?” I did do that, and the answers to those questions forced me down another path.

I have one friend who has been working for Ford for 33 years (he’s 53), in skilled trades, and he knows his days of big paychecks are coming to end. He has been making six-figures for years. He thinks he’ll have to take a buyout soon. He has spent his spare time getting various trucking licenses because he doesn’t want to retire at 53 years old. He’s thinking about the future, and I admire him immensely because he knew what he needed to do and he accomplished it. He still loves his plant job — it was the right thing for him all along. But he’s not expecting — or demanding — any special privileges, so he’s fully prepared to start a new work life.

Don’t get the impression that all Union autoworkers are slackers. There are many who were born into the same blue-collar work ethic as me, yet they are stuck with the consequences of their decisions long ago. Some, like my friend, are comfortable with that, and those who aren’t like to blame everything else. The whining we hear from these workers is that they "have no where else to go." And the media echoes their woes. They believe their industry is so important that their situation demands special treatment — job-saving bailouts, free job training, and then, someone needs to hand them a blue-ribbon livelihood. They demand that their employer be responsible for their loss of job and send them down another golden path. They’ve been taught all along that it is someone else — the union, the government, or their current employer — who is responsible for their personal welfare when their jobs get axed.

No one paid for my "re-training" when I left my ten-year career in the advertising and printing industry to take a chance on an accounting-CPA path. I put in seven long years at great risk and opportunity cost, spent my own money, earned my own scholarships, plus I had to put in my required years of public accounting.

At some point in life you are responsible for making decisions that weigh the benefits of the present vs. the costs in the future. This is a decision we all make, at some point in our lives, and the future effects of such decisions are enormous. The decisions you make about your career path follow you forever, and they either haunt you or they reinforce your good judgment. However, based on my personal experiences and observations, I dispute the notion that people who chose life in the plants had no other options. This point of view only serves to engender flimsy excuses for the lack of foresight and ambition on the part of those autoworkers that have long known that their jobs were at great risk of going away. They made the choice to not prepare for that likelihood.

Autoworkers have to wake up to the fact that times have changed, and they have to change — just like the rest of us. They deserve no political preferences (called "collective bargaining") that make them less vulnerable to the economic and employment blight that is affecting everyone else. And no, their industry is not special; their employers are not "national treasures"; and they are not worthy of subsidies and concessions from the rest of us that will continue to prop up their inflated standard of living.

And considering what I went through, I offer them empathy because I don’t want to see good people have their lifestyles slashed, but I offer no politically-correct pronouncements about their past gambles and future prospects. We live with the consequence of our choices.

Karen De Coster [send her mail] is a Certified Public Accountant, has an MA in Economics, and works in finance and accounting in the securities industry. See her website and her blog.

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