The “Lifer” Career Plan

Lifer Career Plan Image

Essay by Mike Shesterkin, Exec. Director

In last week’s article, we covered the joy I discovered applying science to industrial product development. In this piece, we’ll pick-up the story and dig a bit deeper into my life’s story.

Following in the Footsteps

When I started work in the paint lab, my career plan – which was anything but well thought-out – was based around what I had seen my father and grandfather do. My father and grandfather, as well as my uncle, who is the only one of the three still living, were “technical guys”. 

My grandfather’s family emigrated to the US from Russia shortly after the Bolshevik revolution; they eventually found their way to Detroit. When my grandfather was seventeen, my great-grandfather, for whatever reason, abandoned his family. As the story goes, my grandfather took-on the responsibility of being the family’s breadwinner.

Back then, which would have been around 1924, the US Rubber Company operated a production facility on Jefferson Ave, along the Detroit River, just south of the Belle Isle bridge. If you’re not familiar with the US Rubber Company, they’re the ones who gave Detroit “The Big Tire”. Situated on the south side of eastbound I-94 in Allen Park, The Big Tire is an icon of SE Michigan. Originally constructed by the US Rubber Company as a ferris wheel for the 1964 New York World’s fair, the Big Tire was moved to its present location shortly after the fair. It has welcomed visitors who travel from the east, to Detroit, for more than fifty years.   

My grandfather started at the US Rubber plant on Jefferson Ave working in the mail room. After going to night school and earning a technical degree, Alex P. Shesterkin eventually worked his way into product development. He spent forty-five years working for the same company and retired in 1965. Upon his retirement, the company threw Alex a relatively large retirement party, which included dinner, cocktails and speeches by top managers. For his retirement gift, Alex chose a beautiful atmospheric mantel clock.

Things Change

My father, who studied mechanical engineering at the University of Detroit, did his co-op with the same company that employed my grandfather. After finishing college in 1957, William (Bill) Shesterkin started working full-time designing tires for the US Rubber Company. He, too, spent his entire working life with the same company, beating my grandfather’s length of service by two years. Yet, by the time my dad retired, things were quite a bit different: gone were the lavish retirement parties, gold watches and speeches by top management.

When my dad retired, in the early 2000’s, we ate pizza with a few of his friends and thanked God it was all over. Before my dad finished work, US Rubber had been bought and sold countless times, and guys like my dad –lifers—were few and far between. Well before the turn of the last century, pension liabilities, which had become known as “legacy costs”, were a source of irritation for top managers, the folks who lived-out Friedman’s creed to “maximize shareholder value”. This irritation translated into misery for lifers: It meant they’d be dogged to “give-up” and “get-out”. But not my old’ man! He stuck around to the bitter end. 

When I started working – which was nearly twenty years before my dad retired – the end of his career hadn’t affected my thinking. In the early 1980’s, my dad was still happily working for the same company, which lead me to believe I’d do the same: spend my entire career with the one company, at least that was the idea. Things, of course, changed, and this is where we’ll pick-up the story next week.

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