Retraining: From Chrysler To The Classroom

Joseph Arducan at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Photo by Kate Davidson.

Joseph Arducan is one of the oldest kids in his class.  At 43, he’s a senior at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.  The veteran auto worker is one of the region’s many displaced workers who’ve decided to go back to school.  Ann Arbor reporter Kate Davidson is following Arducan on his new road from Chrysler to the classroom, and beyond.[display_podcast]

In class, Joseph Arducan looks like the model of efficiency.  He sits in the front row, typing notes on his laptop.  He also tapes lectures so he can check his notes against them later.  But Arducan’s system is redundant for a reason.  He types with two fingers.  He feels slow.  He doesn’t trust his memory.

Today, that memory is being put to the test.  The professor hands back the results of the class’s first psychology test.  He’s written a comment, in pencil, on Joseph Arducan’s.

Arducan reads it out loud.  “He wrote: ‘What do you mean when you talk about you get bad memories?’” he says.  “‘You did great.’”

But when I look at the same sentence, I read it as: ‘What do you mean when you talk about your bad memory?’

Well, it turns out that for Joseph Arducan, bad memory and bad memories are colliding, here, in this classroom.  And to make it to graduation, he has to overcome both.  We’ll return to those memories in a moment.

Taking A Buyout, Taking A Gamble

Joseph Arducan is not alone in facing an uncertain future.  Over the last 20 years, the country has lost millions of manufacturing jobs.  Arducan worked as a toolmaker at Chrysler’s Warren Stamping Plant when he saw the writing on the wall.  So in the spring of 2009, as the company headed for bankruptcy, he took a leap of faith and a buyout.  He says he gave up a six figure salary and a top union job. 

“It’s hard to walk away from that,” Arducan says.  “I mean somebody in their right mind in this economic downturn would say, ‘You’re working for the Big Three.  You have no degree.  You’re making that much money with all that benefits.  How can you be that dumb to walk away?’  It’s because I look at them every day.”

Them are his wife Lori and his two daughters, ages five and eleven.  Joseph says his degree is being paid for by Michigan Works!, a workforce development association that’s using federal money to send him to school.

The Classroom Experience

Joseph and Lori Arducan at their home in Chesterfield, Michigan. With Jenna, 5, and Lexus, 11. Photo by Kate Davidson.

Many auto workers go to community colleges when they return to school. 

But some, like Joseph Arducan, are determined to make it to the University of Michigan.

“They have an incredible work ethic,” says Martin Hershock, an associate professor of history at the Dearborn campus. 

But he says the transition to academia can be very difficult.

Joseph Arducan says he’d like to become a physician’s assistant, but his confidence is shaken.  That’s where the bad memory comes in.  Arducan says he can’t study too far before a test, because he just forgets.  And he struggles with computers.

“Now, everything is computer,” he says.  “Everything is, you know, the 21st century, which I am very far behind in.

His five year old daughter Jenna is sprawled on the carpet, drawing pictures with an iPhone.  Joseph Arducan didn’t have a smart phone or a computer growing up.  He didn’t even know how to use Microsoft Word when he left Chrysler last year.  Now some assignments take forever.

“I’ll sit in the basement for hours on days,” he says.  “And I’ll finally ask her, Lori, how do I do this?  Because I don’t want to ask.  I don’t want her to be in college.”

“We see him more now,” his wife Lori Arducan says.  “He’s physically home more now.  But I think we spend less time with him now.  That’s one of the things that’s hard.”

What’s Next?

The class is about personality development at the beginning of life. Photo by Kate Davidson.

The uncertainty about what’s next may be even harder.  If Joseph Arducan doesn’t go into the health field, he might try criminal justice.  Or social work.  But what he’s really passionate about is his psychology class.

And that’s where the bad memories come in. 

As a child, Joseph Arducan was abused by his father.  Now, in middle age, he’s using this class to try to understand the effects of that abuse. 

Arducan says he and his siblings were homeless for a time.

“We lived in a car, we hid from him,” he says.  “In the middle of winter and nothing to eat.  My mother used to scavenge out of the dumpsters, looking for cans of food from the restaurant.”

And that’s why work is the most important thing to Joseph Arducan.  It’s more important than family.  To him, it’s what makes family possible.  So right now, school is his job.  And if you’re wondering what he got on that psychology test … well, he got an A-. 

“See, hard work pays off,” he says.  Only five people in class did better.

Joseph Arducan flashes his easy going grin.  And he hopes that a year from now, he’ll be flashing his diploma. 

“I will cry the day I get that degree,” he says.  “And it may only be the University of Michigan-Dearborn, but to me, it’s still the University…  And I went there and I made that decision knowing that, no matter how hard it gets, that degree is going to carry its own weight.”

But will it be enough to get Joseph Arducan work in Michigan?  We’ll be following that journey.

One Reply to “Retraining: From Chrysler To The Classroom”

  1. I was wondering how you quit a 6 figure job, get a buy out from the company and still have the government pay for your school. I am struggling making 45k @ year paying for one class at a time trying to change my future. I am happy for you, Joseph, I have 3 years on your age no hand out from the government and no buy out from my company. Best of luck to you.

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