Auto Afterlife

People used to spend their entire working life at a car company. But today, some former auto employees are changing gears and riding down new career paths.
Photographs by David Lewinski

Lorna G. Utley //

Twenty-eight years at General Motors is nothing in that organization, which for years tended to breed multi-decade veterans, sometimes generations of them. But everything changes, even GM, and those who find themselves on the outside of the RenCen learn something that’s not always clear inside: It’s a great big world of possibilities out there.

Lorna Utley spent the last six of her 28-year stretch running the GM Foundation, its charitable non-profit arm. She helped GM handle its considerable philanthropic efforts, as well as overseeing diversity initiatives. But when workforce reductions and other changes settled in, she came to an agreement with her employer and left with severance in 2006, no particular plan, and years of working life ahead of her.

A hop, skip, and jump later, she found herself in the president’s office at Goodwill Industries of Greater Detroit. At first glance, the social-service agency, with 300 employees and roughly 17,000 clients in a year, has little in common with the GM Foundation, outside of 501c3 status, but Utley finds herself drawing on her automotive experience every day. “I bring the full depth and breadth of my business experience and community connections to this job,” she says. And some days it’s not so far apart at all; Goodwill is a Tier 1 supplier to GM, providing assembly services for safety kits for new cars.

But other days, it’s refreshingly different. “I have a full range of responsibility here,” says Utley, who explains what that means in practice: Goodwill was wrestling with rising health-care costs and needed to make changes. “I didn’t have to write five memos and make 10 presentations,” she says. “I was able to make the decision on my own.” It’s easy to forget that all those layers of management at a huge corporation can both shelter and suffocate; sometimes it’s nice to breathe the fresh air.

Marc Serra //

The cotton was high for a very long time, but when the weevils finally took over the fields, Marc Serra didn’t see anything good coming of it.

After years with Chrysler, through its Daimler period and into Cerberus, from working the line to supervising production, from straight out of high school, to the military, to two company-funded college degrees, he was bearing down on 40 with job security today, but not necessarily tomorrow. So when the company started offering juicy incentives to reduce its workforce, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse: $100,000 cash, a $25,000 voucher toward a new car, and yet more Chrysler-funded education. Only this time he’s studying to become a registered nurse, and when his degree is in hand, he’ll be working for someone else.

Serra played his cards right, picking up a fully loaded Jeep Grand Cherokee at deep discount in the ruinous inventory glut of late 2008. He enrolled in a program at Baker College that will get him his R.N. in two years. And he relaxed into a glide pattern enabled by the severance package and years of careful saving.

Nursing, he says, is a logical extension of his longtime interest in health and fitness. (He’s also working as a trainer at Pointe Fitness in Harper Woods.) It’s a radical change from overseeing production at Sterling Stamping, but he was ready for one.

“It’s hard getting up every morning, knowing you’re going to be doing the same old thing,” he says. Nursing is the next stop on the road, but if it doesn’t work out, he’s up for another change in direction: “Something else will come along.” With an R.N., a B.A., and an M.B.A., he’s better suited for the changes ahead than most.