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This week, 2,000 General Motors employees in lost their jobs as the company idles most of its operation in Spring Hill, Tennessee. GM is trying to ease the blow. It's offering about 800 of those employees a transfer to a Michigan plant. That leaves many with a choice: take a GM job in Michigan or take their chances in a shaky job market at home. From member station, WPLN in Nashville, Blake Farmer has this story.
Mr. COTY STRING (Employee, General Motors): You ready to go man? Time to meet momma.
BLAKE FARMER: Coty String buckles in his one-year-old son before making the handoff to his wife. Then he and his longtime colleagues at GM Spring Hill will punch the clock on their last Friday working second shift, installing window glass on the Chevy Traverse.
Mr. STRING: It's almost about equal to dying, so this may be the last time we all see each other in our lifetime.
FARMER: String moved to Tennessee nearly 20 years ago, from Flint, Michigan. Now he's put in to transfer back home, leaving six grown children behind.
Mr. STRING: I want to stay, but I'm going to end up going - I mean I still have bills to pay. The majority of us, we only know how to build cars.
FARMER: Like so many, String is too young to retire and too old to do anything else, at least, he says, if he wants to keep the lifestyle his family has grown accustomed to.
The state has poured more than a million dollars into helping transition workers to new careers. But 57-year-old Bill Beasley says becoming something like a nurse just isn't practical.
You're saying that you're a little too old to go become a nurse and start nursing when you're sixty.
Mr. BILL BEASLEY: Right, I may be on the other end. Somebody may be nursing me when I'm 60.
FARMER: Beasley has decided to stick it out in Spring Hill, though he's not sure how he'll make a living.
BEASLEY: With age comes experience, and I've learned not to freak out, you know. There's something out there. I'm more worried about, you know, my son works for Penske, which�
FARMER: Because they're one of the suppliers, right?
BEASLEY: One of the suppliers there.
FARMER: And they don't quite have the safety net you guys have?
BEASLEY: No they don't.
FARMER: The 2,000 GM employees will get at least a year of severance pay. Suppliers aren't so lucky. And the county estimates just as many supply jobs will vanish as GM Spring Hill goes idle. Workers here have been through layoffs before. The most recent was to transition from making Saturns to Chevys. Now, Spring Hill mayor Michael Dinwiddie says nothing's on the horizon.
Mayor MICHAEL DINWIDDIE (Spring Hill, Tennessee): Could be six months. It could be six years. We just don't know. It's that uncertainty that is probably driving people to do whatever is necessary.
FARMER: It drove the mayor to take a temp job at the plant ahead of the shutdown.
Mayor DINWIDDIE: I felt that one of the best ways I could support them was to be with them, side by side, when it happens.
FARMER: For a select few, ending a career with GM lit a fire under them to do something entirely new.
Mr. DONALD PARENT: My way out was really lift off.
FARMER: Donald Parent was a salaried employee, recently let go as part of GM's reorganization.
Mr. PARENT: Yeah, this is a poster that spans 25 years, and this is where my business idea is.
FARMER: The former GM analyst unrolls a timeline of the rise and fall of the Saturn brand, which got its start in Spring Hill. Parent wants to build a tourist attraction for any remaining Saturn fanatics. The spark for his idea came in an entrepreneurship class run by Jan McKeel.
Ms. JAN MCKEEL (Director, South Central Tennessee Workforce Alliance): We see many people choose to start from scratch and I just admire them so much.
FARMER: But they're the exception, not the rule. McKeel runs the county's career center and expects to be busier than ever in the next few months.
Ms. MCKEEL: It would not surprise me if we nip right at 20 percent unemployment.
FARMER: Most of GM Spring Hill's employees relocated to Tennessee nearly two decades ago. Now the prospect of one in five residents being without a job may send them packing for Michigan.
For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
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