Pleasanton Weekly

Column - March 26, 2010

Amador coach among 4,700 losing jobs at NUMMI

by Jeb Bing

Next Friday, my good friend and lifelong Pleasanton resident Ken Villegas will find himself unemployed for the first time since graduating from Amador Valley High School in 1967. As an 18-year-old, he took a job at the new General Motors assembly plant in Fremont, and then in 1984 was hired on at the New United Motor Manufacturing factory, which was a breakthrough joint venture of GM and Toyota using the same plant, which was then expanded. Today, at age 60, Villegas has less than a week's worth of work to complete before NUMMI closes its plant -- the only automobile manufacturing facility left in California -- putting him and some 4,700 other employees out of work in one of the worst recessions we've seen in half a century.

Villegas is probably best known locally as the winning boys soccer coach at Amador. The team just ended its winter season, making it to the North Coast Section playoffs for the 11th straight year -- and for the 12th time since Villegas started coaching there 13 years ago. Long ago, when he first started coaching junior varsity at Foothill and later at Moreau Catholic, he rearranged his schedule at NUMMI to start at 3 a.m. daily so that he could be back on campus for soccer practice when school let out. If he finds another job, he'll ask for a similar schedule so that he can coach his highly talented young team when the season starts again in November.

Unlike some others at NUMMI, Villegas still sings the praises of the company's management and workforce, which has produced hundreds of thousand of vehicles over the years. As a team leader, he helped learn and introduce the productivity skills and quality control that Japanese management brought with them to the joint venture. Different from conventional assembly line manufacturing, NUMMI employees worked as teams from top management to the maintenance department, celebrating together every improvement in output. What puzzles Villegas is why Toyota is shuttering the plant which has gained worldwide recognition for its quality and productivity. But once General Motors pulled out of the joint venture agreement because of bankruptcy, the NUMMI contract became vulnerable, especially with Toyota already having its own plants in several southern states and Canada, including a new plant in Tennessee that stands empty.

Villegas says that NUMMI and Toyota are being fair to its Fremont-based employees, offering sizeable retention packages for those who stay at their jobs through April 1 with additional support promised in retraining programs and job searches. Although there's been some bitterness over Toyota's decision, for the most part the same can-do spirit that permeated the NUMMI workforce has continued in the last six months since the plant closing was announced. It's possible, he says, that the prestigious J. D. Power Gold Award for manufacturing efficiency could go to NUMMI, an award that would be presented in May to a plant that would then be empty.

Villegas has lived here all his life. With his wife Marilyn, also an Amador graduate, the couple has three children: Ken Jr., now 39; daughter Jennifer Villegas Sanford, who lives in New York City with her husband Andy and their four children; and Anthony, 33. Ken Jr. and Jennifer also graduated from Amador, but Anthony, who was in the seventh grade when Pleasanton Middle School opened, followed his friends to Foothill, where he played on the Falcons soccer teams.

Villegas says that with the retention package offered by NUMMI, unemployment compensation until he finds another job and a pension that he can start collecting in two years when he turns 62, he and Marilyn will be able to continue living in Pleasanton. Many fellow workers live here, too, with hundreds more living in the Tri-Valley. He's concerned for many others who are losing their jobs at much younger ages who have young children, children in college and homes with larger mortgages. They'll need to find jobs quickly and Villegas, along with Human Resources assistance from Toyota, plan to do what they can to help them. Come next Friday, though, Villegas will be taking a vacation -- probably still waking up early but traveling a bit to relax after 43 years of 8-to-10-hour shifts and many weekends also on the job.

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