The auto industry was built on the backs of families. It started with Karl and Bertha Benz. Then came the Dodge Brothers and the Ford family. They were followed by Olds and Chrysler, and eventually Sakichi Toyoda and Soichiro Honda and family.
It’s still supported by them today. Toyota, Nissan, General Motors and many other manufacturers have generations of grandparents, parents and children working in the same plant. Husband and wife teams, best friends and partners working together help make the 40-hour work week not only tolerable, but enjoyable and rewarding.
The Patterson Family
Nissan’s Powertrain Assembly Plant in Decherd, Tennessee spans 968 acres, has a workforce of 2,000 people and was completed in 1997. The company has invested $1.4 billion in the property that produces many of the engines Nissan makes for itself and Infiniti, including the eMotor assembly for the outgoing Leaf EV.
It’s also the workplace of the Patterson family, grandfather Don, son Tony and grandsons Tony II and Jake. Tony joined first in 2002 in the machining quality department, while studying to earn his engineering degree. His father Don was hired as a technician on the line before working as a quality supervisor until his retirement in 2021.
But that’s not the Pattersons only gig, they also have farm. While Tony worked during the week, Don tended to the beef cattle business. On the weekends they switched.
“Farming pushes you to think on your feet, troubleshoot to identify the issue and create a solution quickly,” said Tony Patterson in a Nissan series about its workers. “The same can be said about powertrain engineering and manufacturing. In the same way that we may have to figure out machining to bail hay before it rains, we also have to determine why a particular piece of equipment isn’t building the parts we need to meet production schedules.”
Tony Patterson II joined the Dechard plant in 2018 as a new model machining engineer while the plant was getting a new training center. Jake spent the summer of 2019 as an assembly engineer.
Tony was there when Nissan made the location the first full-service engine assembly plant in North America, complete with casting and forging operations. He was also there when Nissan introduced its “most intricate and technologically advanced line to date” for producing the VC-Turbo engines.
“Nissan Decherd has a personal atmosphere – one that’s hard to put into words,” says Tony Patterson. “It makes coming to work easier when you get to do it with your family.”
Daniel and Julia Rusch
About 250 miles north at Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky plant, Daniel Rusch joined the team in 1988 in assembly maintenance. He trained many team members, most importantly, his daughter Julia.
“It’s really meant a lot when my daughter would ask me questions and I’d be able to help her out. It was really gratifying; my children being interested in what I do and wanting to learn from me,” said Rusch in a Father’s Day post by Toyota.
Julia went to college and graduated, originally going to work in a different field than her father. Eventually she decided she wanted to work for Toyota and started at the Advanced Manufacturing Technician (AMT) program. It gives technicians a way to transition into the field with hands-on experience.
“My dad has always been super supportive of me and my siblings and what we wanted to do,” she said. “He knows from experience how great of a job this can be, so after I got into the AMT program, I could tell he was excited that I was going to follow in his footsteps.”
“I thought she needed to start from scratch,” her dad said. “I wanted her to start in school and get the basics so she could have that knowledge and people would see her as a maintenance person right off the bat.”
Julia says that the two would have lunch occasionally, even though they worked on different sides of the building.
“It was a nice pick me up just to see him and it always put a smile on my face. I honestly have really enjoyed going through this and working with my dad. I think it’s made our bond even closer because we have this in common,” she said.
Ben and Liz Wilkins
At the General Motors compound in Warren, Michigan, Ben and Liz Wilkins are both designers, Ben on exteriors and Liz on interiors. They joined forces to create the latest Chevrolet Silverado ZR2, the most off-road focused of the Silverado pickups. But, they met a long time before that.
“We didn’t meet at GM, we both went to the Cleveland Institute of Art. We’re both originally from Ohio so we met at school. I was studying graphic design and Ben was studying industrial design with an emphasis in automotive. We me through some mutual friends, we had a shared interest of design so we bonded over that,” Liz Wilkins, design manager, Chevrolet color and trim told Newsweek.
“I graduated in 2012 and Ben in 2013 (Liz with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design and Ben with a BFA in industrial design with a focus on automotive), so we knew we both had some interest in automotive. I previously interned at GM in 2010 in Brand Identity, so I worked on a lot of badging and different elements like that in GM, so I knew a little bit about color and trim,” Liz said. “That was always something that stood out to me and was fascinating. So, when Ben was going to apply to be an exterior designer, I saw that they were also hiring for color and trim.”
They applied and got interviews the same week, their offers came the same week and they had the same start date on the company’s truck program. Their first assignment together was the 2019 Chevrolet Silverado, which makes turning off work mode once they get home a difficult proposition.
“Yeah, I think as a designer its especially difficult to turn off work because you’re always trying to solve these difficult design problems. You get home and find yourself running through potential solutions while you’re running around the house,” Ben Wilkins, exterior design, Chevrolet full-size trucks told Newsweek. “But we do try to switch our focus to other things we can enjoy, to get our minds off the studio work. Step away to come back with a fresh eye. We really like to spend time gardening and doing things outside, where we can kind of disconnect for a minute.”
Liz agrees and believes ground rules must be drawn. And when the pandemic hit it added another wrinkle to the equation.
“Being able to turn off work is difficult sometimes when you’re passionate about the project. So I think there were certain times it’s like 6:30 and we decided we’re not talking about work anymore. We’d have to set parameters to keep the healthy work/life balance,” she said.
“During the pandemic we worked from home for about a year and a half. So that was definitely a challenge for us specifically because we have a fairly small home and our office was not meant to have two people working in it. But we crammed in and ran the ethernet cable through the entire house. And backed up to each other taking calls, it was a bit of challenge at first, but we figured it out,” said Liz.
“Yeah, there were plenty of times where we had to be in a meeting at the same time. One of us would take the living room, one of us would take the office. We’ve made it work,” said Ben.
There are some advantages to being stacked on top of one another, especially if they’re in the same field like the Wilkins family.
“Because we were sometimes able to hear the other person’s call, once in a while I could get an early start on something, if they were looking for a specific finish,” said Liz. “It’s nice to hear his side of the design process in addition to my own. It opened my eyes a little bit. Sometimes I’ll hear something and just yell ‘it’s not that finish it’s a different one!’”
Melaina Vasko-Pfau and Aaron Pfau
Melaina Vasko-Pfau and husband Aaron Pfau have a slightly different situation in that Melaina is at Nissan as Vehicle Program Development Manager for full-size trucks and SUVs while Aaron is at now GM as lead development engineer for the GMC Hummer EV. Their relationship needs to be even more disciplined as their employers are competitors, but they used to work side by side.
“I started at Nissan right out of college in January 2006. I was fortunate to get an interview with Nissan after a career fair at University of Michigan and with the recommendation of a college friend who also got hired by Nissan, I was hired,” Melaina told Newsweek.
“We were both new hires and started new hire training at the same time. About one month into my time at Nissan, my husband and I were assigned to go to our manufacturing plant in Mississippi for additional training, so we took our first business trip together as well,” she said.
They became friends at Nissan, and more, but kept the relationship and their professional lives separate. But eventually they got engaged and the beans were spilled.
“I’ll never forget, when we broke the news to our team at work, our manager declared in our big team meeting ‘Melaina-san got engaged last weekend,’ there was lots of clapping and cheering, ‘to Aaron-san!’ Everyone’s jaws hit the floor and we had some explaining to do,” Aaron told Newsweek.
Aaron left Nissan in 2013 and headed to General Motors. He wanted a job in vehicle dynamics, but instead he got the job in vehicle performance. He started in the wind tunnel and moved into chassis controls working on full-size trucks, like his wife.
Unlike the Wilkins family, they are now privy to proprietary details that they legally must keep from each other. They can’t listen to each other’s phone calls, going as far as switching rooms or floors when something comes up.
“Both of our positions come with highly confidential information. We both work on programs from concept to production so there is often information, before the programs are public, that cannot be shared. This wasn’t a problem much until working from home started,” Melaina said.
“When Michigan was shut down and we were both working from home, we split up the house to maintain that confidentiality. I worked upstairs and him downstairs. Whenever one of us had a highly confidential meeting, we made sure the other knew to not come around. It worked out well but was a bit of a challenge at first!”
Their conversations have evolved too. When they both worked for Nissan they had a shared terminology they could use, and they could share details. Aaron still understands Nissan shorthand, but Melania has to piece things together when Aaron explains things in GM terms. That’s if they can even talk about their current projects at all.
“Shortly after Aaron moved to GM, he was working on the 2019 Chevrolet Silverado, and I was working on the 2017 Nissan Titan. My team and I knew the Silverado was coming out and were very interested in the details. Aaron had the details we were interested in, but since the Silverado was still in concept phase, details were not public. This basically meant that we couldn’t talk much about work. We could simply share a ‘how was your day’ run-down high level but really no details,” Melaina said.
Aaron and Melaina, like the others above, have come to the same conclusion: that working with a family member or significant other is a huge bonus. With fast-paced development schedules they both understand the demands of each other’s jobs, including the calls overseas and the necessary travel.
“When your jobs have you traveling a fair amount, you look for opportunities to extend or overlap or schedule some vacation, so we still get to spend quality time together,” said Pfau. “Most recently, I was out in Moab, Utah testing with the Hummer EV team while Melaina was supporting a media event for one of her programs in Park City. We were both able to extend our trips into the weekend and got to have a mini vacation.”
Additionally, once the products are on the street, they can talk all they want, which benefits both of them as employees.
“I will say it is also nice to be able to talk about the segments we work on (once confidentiality isn’t a concern),” said Melania. “For example, we both work in the off-road vehicle space and we both like to off-road for fun. This allows us to have conversations about off-road wants and needs and understand what the other is talking about. It makes our ‘work’ conversations much easier to have and removes the need for detailed explanations because we both understand!”
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