“Yes, of course I want to come back to Detroit and work for an auto company after college,” I told a perplexed neighbor at my high-school graduation party. A little background might help.
At the height of the Roaring Twenties, my great-grandfather, living in Rhode Island, was an unemployed immigrant from Quebec. Desperate and looking for a way to achieve the American Dream, he turned to the “Paris of the Midwest” for hope. In a letter to Henry Ford, my great-grandfather said he was a hard worker and wanted to come to Detroit for Ford's new $5-a-day jobs. Ford wrote him back and hired him; my family planted its roots in Detroit.
My great-grandparents endured the mass layoffs of the 1930s, they became U.S. citizens in Detroit in the 1940s, and they died in Detroit. My grandfather did his time at Ford and moved on to other sectors of the automotive industry. My father currently works for Pacific Insight Electronics, an automotive supplier that deals almost exclusively with Ford.
It was my family's history with the blue oval that prompted me to choose Ford for my senior project. My former high school offers seniors the opportunity to take the month of May off school to study an industry.
I got in contact with a neighbor who is director of operations for Ford's Stamping Business Unit. His office created a matrix that allowed me to visit almost every part of Ford that was involved in the creation of cars.
I never thought I would have such a fun time with engineers. Math is not one of my best subjects, to say the least. The biggest learning curve in my first few days was studying Fordspeak. From Day One, every meeting I attended had acronyms and product codes that had to be learned. For example, the moon roof on the U387 (known to civilians as the Ford Edge) isn't simply a moon roof, it is a BAMR, or a Big Air Moon Roof.
Using Fordspeak around my friends made me feel like a geek. And it felt great, not so much to say something that none of my friends understood, but to know that someone, somewhere in Dearborn (Ford's hometown) would know exactly what I was talking about.
Working at Ford was almost like being a part of a family, with thousands of smart people excited to do their part. I met a roof-design engineer who spent the whole day analyzing the joint between the roof and the upper body frame. From a computer screen, to the design studio, to the benchmarking facility, to the pilot plant, this engineer was so excited to design such a seemingly small aspect of the car. It was refreshing to see someone happy to do his part for the bigger picture.
As I moved through the process of building a car, I felt the family atmosphere. I wondered, “Maybe it's because Ford is still controlled by the original family?” Something that helped cement the team feeling for me were the little ONE FORD cards that all employees carry. The cards have the company's goals and objectives expressed in terms as simple as possible. The cards hold everyone together.
At the Dearborn Stamping Plant in the Rouge Complex, I met a man who's a living testament to Ford's community.
He is Willie Fulton and he has been working at Ford for 57 years. He is 78. Why does he keep working? He does it because he put his kids, his grandkids, and some of the neighbor's kids through college. At Ford, he's treated like a dignitary. He is the only hourly worker who's allowed to park in a salaried person's spot and almost every executive who ever visits that plant makes sure to visit Fulton.
As I watched cars roll off Ford's final-assembly line, I thought about all the people I had met along the way that contributed to the final product. I then looked up at the tourist catwalks where the Rouge Factory Tour takes visitors. What they don't see is how much energy is devoted to every minute detail.
Participating in an activity for a higher purpose is what Detroit needs if it is to truly reinvent itself. Of course, the poor economy and some poor choices made by the Big Three damaged the city's status, but there is a lot to learn from companies like Ford. Communication, passion, sacrifice and, most importantly, hard work have reinvigorated Ford. The same traits can help reinvigorate the Motor City.
Although I am going away to college in the fall, to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., I believe my professional aspirations will eventually bring me back to the city that made me possible.
Detroit gave my forefathers hope and prosperity; I believe it is my responsibility to return the favor in whatever way I can.
Michael St. Germain is part of the “TIME 11,” a group of Detroit area high-school students working with Assignment Detroit. He recently graduated from Cranbrook Kingswood in suburban Detroit.