No city has been more affected by Midwestern out-migration than Detroit.
Based on the latest census numbers, the city is losing about 2 people every hour.
Changing Gears has been talking with some of those people who are leaving our region.
Alex Ozark grew up in Detroit. He always wanted to work in the auto industry, but he’s not doing it with the Big Three. He’s doing it in California.
Charla Bear brings us this report:
Alex Ozark drives like a maniac in his company’s cars, treating a black SUV like a cross between a tank and a sports car.
“So we’ll do, we’ll do a hot lap.”
He deliberately hits potholes, runs over lane dividers, and takes corners really fast. So fast, I have a death grip on the grab handle.
I’ve heard bad stories about SUVs and rollover. “When the tires are squealing, everything’s ok,” says Ozark.
I sort of trust him. I mean, it is his job to know these things. He’s a durability engineer for Hyundai and Kia. That means he tests out vehicles at the company’s proving grounds, a set of tracks in the California desert designed to simulate different driving conditions. That is, if you stay on them.
“The plus is, when you go off, no big deal,” says Ozark.
In fact, he’s clearly thrilled by it. The 25-year-old says he’s wanted to push cars to the limit ever since he was a kid in Metro Detroit.
Growing up in the shadow of the Big Three US automakers, it’s probably tough not to fall in love with cars. Ozark gave his heart to one in particular at an early age.
“The Dodge Viper. Classic child’s love car, right?”
Not that he cares if you agree. To him, this car was the ultimate machine. It was even his reason for going to the University of Detroit-Mercy. He enrolled in the in the fall of 2004.
“At that time, it seemed like, oh man, this is going to be great. In 2008, there are going to be so many engineering possibilities and jobs available. This is like, the perfect job,” he says.
Of course, that’s not how it turned out.
In 2007, General Motors reported nearly $39 billion in losses. By the time Alex graduated from college, GM and Chrysler were headed toward bankruptcy.
“It was always just growing in the back of my head – you know what, customers don’t want this. There’s no innovation. There’s nothing new. This isn’t good. I don’t like you anymore,” he says.
With his sights no longer set on the Big Three, he says he really had no reason to stay in Michigan. Almost everyone he grew up with was gone. His mom and stepdad had moved to Virginia, his best friend was in San Diego. He started thinking about looking for a job in California.
“The sun is always out – it’s the Golden State. And I thought, there’s no better place to go work,” says Ozark. He figured with the state’s focus on high-tech and the environment, he was bound to find an innovative company. He saw an opening in the development group at Hyundai Kia and jumped on it.
“And, when I went there, what I saw were vehicles coming down the line that were now 40 miles per gallon vehicles, hybrids and electrics down the line. I can’t fathom doing anything else.”
So, you might think when GM came out with the Volt, one of the most fuel efficient cars on the road, it would change his opinion of The Big Three. Maybe rekindle a little of that passion he used to have. It didn’t. “I can’t extrapolate the Volt to the whole company,” says Ozark. “It’s just such a niche little product that they have that they aren’t even selling that much of.” Alex doesn’t buy that The Big Three have changed.
Chris Perry is vice president of marketing for GM’s Chevy line. The company brought him in a year and a half ago to help improve its image. He says his job would have been much harder before the automaker went belly up.
“If you look back on the history of our products, there were some pretty unspectacular products. That’s just the reality,” says Perry. He points to the Aveo and Cobalt, two compact cars the company no longer makes.
“We have to start with ‘What does the customer want out of this segment?’ and build a car that meets that [sic] criteria.”
GM’s market share is at a 90-year low, but it turned a record profit last year and it’s drawing budding engineers who are eager to help the company move in a new direction.
Scott Lenanna is a test engineer for abuse and safety testing of batteries at GM.
Lenanna has a lot in common with Ozark. He is 20-something, into cars, and he moved from home to find work. The only difference is that he is a California boy who came to Detroit.
“I’ll move to wherever the innovation and excitement is,” he says, but he never imagined that would be in Detroit, or at a US automaker. He always pictured himself at a Silicon Valley startup. But now that GM is into hybrid and electric cars, he sees things differently.
“I don’t think batteries are perfect right now, but us putting the Volt out into the market is pushing battery companies to innovate. So, not only are we innovating, we’re pushing other people to innovate.”
He says Detroit could use more young engineers with their “heads in the clouds” to help car companies think in new ways.
So does any of this convince Alex Ozark? Would he consider moving back?
“No. This world is pretty vast. It doesn’t make sense to go back to where I started,” he says. Not even if the Big Three produced the most amazing, innovative cars out there. Not even if they paid him a fortune. He says California is too much fun. He gets to ride a motorcycle, snowboard on real mountains, and skateboard by the beach. Most of all, he says just being there makes him a happier person.
“It seems like the dreariness and grayness of the skies in Michigan, it always had me depressed. As soon as I came out here and it was sunny – instant change,” he says.
Yet, no matter how much he says he’s done with Detroit, there are some ties he can’t sever.
On the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, Ozark introduces me to one of his favorite places in all of L.A., Coney Dog, a Detroit-style hot dog joint. He lights up as we make our way to a booth, past black and white photos of the city, hockey figurines and a waitress whose shirt says Detroit Grrrrl.
“It’s instantly comforting. The whole atmosphere. The diner feel. The Coney Dog availability,” says Ozark. And the Coney Dogs are the real deal, flown in from the Motor City and complete with Greek-style wet chili. The burgers are loose – no overly pressed patties here. Alex Ozark orders one of each.
“It tastes exactly like this place Comet Burger in Royal Oak. It’s perfect.”
So good, it’s worth the three-hour round trip – even if he’s by himself. But when he’s here, he’s never really alone. This place is a hub for displaced Michiganders, and he says they share a camaraderie that instantly makes him feel at home.