NUMMI Refugee Finds Job at Bloom Energy

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Maria Gregg (R) and her daughter, Anabelle Ploss (L). (Credit: Myrow/KQED)

Half a year after NUMMI closed, what happened to those former auto workers in the San Francisco Bay Area? 47-hundred people lost their jobs in Fremont - thousands more working for suppliers were also cut loose… at a time when work was hard to come by. And still is, by most accounts.

April was a scary month for Maria Gregg, a 45 year-old single mom who hadn’t been in the job market for 20 years.

"I was very sad to lose that part of my family, that part of my identity.  There was this gaping whole of 'Who am I now?' Gregg said, sitting on the couch in her modestly appointed townhouse in Fremont.

"At the time I thought 'Who wants an auto worker?' Who would need the skills that I have?"

Gregg considered a new career in radiology. She took a couple of prerequisite courses at Ohlone College: Organic Chemistry and Medical Terminology. But she quickly realized going back to school meant a 2/3 pay cut - and with an 18 year old daughter also at Ohlone, Gregg figured she had to jump into the job market.

She turned to the NUMMI Reemployment Center, where Gregg learned what a modern resume should look like, among other things.

"I took every single class that I could take. I knew that I had to master the art of finding a job. Within a month, I got a hit from Solyndra. That was pretty exciting, because I knew the layout of my resume was working for me. I knew it had to be perfected, though."

Gregg learned how to shine in a job interview. Tip:  “Tell me about yourself” is not an invitation to explain you’re a single mom who plays piano and volleyball. Focus on relevant achievements.

"For example, I was able to save my department 25% in spare parts expenditures over the last three years, by implementing a system which tracked failures and repairs."

Gregg's daughter, Anabelle Ploss, didn't doubt her mother would find a new job.  She didn't lose heart when the belt-tightening began.  "We didn't go out to dinner as much. There weren't as many snacks, not as much ice cream in the house. My mom's attitude - I think at first she was really sad, but then, after awhile, she really made an effort."

Anabelle's dream job? The Half Time Report on ESPN. The fact it's an incredibly difficult goal to achieve doesn't deter her. "This is really something I want to do and I'll take whatever it takes to get there. The fact that it's hard just makes me want it more."

As the summer wore on, Gregg was pleasantly surprised to find her skills fixing and maintaining machinery attracted call backs. The firms she talked to reflect the breadth of the Bay Area’s economy – Bay Area Rapid Transit, Central Contra Costa Sanitary District, East Bay Municipal Utility District, Transcontinental, Union Sanitary District, and finally, Bloom Energy, the fuel cell maker in Sunnyvale. The man who interviewed her…was another NUMMI alum.

"He knew exactly where I was coming from," Gregg said. "The safety training, the Toyota Production System training, lean manufacturing and continuing improvements: all those things were a plus."

Gregg is making 20 percent less now in terms of hourly wages – $28.35 an hour at Bloom – compared to $34.98 at NUMMI. She's not getting health benefits at Bloom like she got at NUMMI. But Gregg says she loves the energy and warmth of the Sunnyvale start up...along with a lot of old colleagues.

"It seems like the whole body shop is there. In the maintenance department, there's 12 of us, and out of the 12 there are 6 former NUMMI employees," Gregg said. Bloom won't divulge more details, but the anecdotal evidence points to clutches of NUMMI workers settling together at various workplaces in the Bay Area.

Gregg meets with 20 friends from NUMMI for pizza every other month. She says 17 are working again, in jobs that pay $20 or $30 and change an hour. Some at the companies listed above. Others at Pepsi in Union City, Svenhard's Swedish Bakery in Oakland, and Tesla Motors on the old NUMMI site in Fremont. (Tesla says it's hired about 30 former NUMMI workers.)

Tony Castillo with the Alameda County Workforce Investment Board adds a few more companies to the list of those that have taken on NUMMI refugees: Petersen Dean Roofing, Home Depot and Ingersoll Rand.

There aren’t hard numbers that show whether individual successes, like those of Gregg and her pizza party buddies, reflect a broader truth - yet. At last count, the unemployment rate in Alameda County was 11.6 percent.

Even when a fresh batch of statistics comes out after the new year, they may not reflect the future hope in the fact a number of former NUMMI workers are in school now, voluntarily deferring a new, full-time paycheck in order to invest in a new career direction.

In any case, Gregg says, the grim statistics she's reading about in the newspapers don't reflect the positive direction her life is taking.

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About Rachael Myrow

Rachael Myrow hosts the California Report for KQED. Over 17 years in public radio, she's worked for Marketplace and KPCC, filed for NPR and The World, and developed a sizable tea collection that's become the envy of the KQED newsroom. She specializes in politics, economics and history in California - but for emotional balance, she also covers food and its relationship to health and happiness.

Comments (2)

  1. Molly says:

    This is nice, thanks. As someone who doesn’t work anywhere near the manufacturing sector, I had no idea what the job prospects for former NUMMI workers would be. It all sounded kind of dire. Keep us updated!