Ex-General Motors factory worker pursues a new life as a chef

The College on a Dime series is written by Zac Bissonnette, a junior at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His book College On a Dime will be published by Penguin in the fall.

Ryan Hawkinberry, 34, has wanted to be a chef since he was ten years old. But like his father before him, he turned to a General Motors assembly plant for a steady income and benefits that allowed him to support his family, which includes five children between the ages of six and 19.

In 1999, after he had just graduated from high school, Hawkinberry started working at GM's Dayton, Ohio plant. He later transferred to another plant in Mansfield, Ohio. Despite the years he decided to spend at the plant, it soon became evident that Hawkinberry hated working there. One clue: he took as many sick days as he possibly could.
In 2008, his father, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, told him to go after his dream. "The car industry isn't what it was," he told his son. "Get out of GM and go with your heart. Follow your passion."

At the time, GM was downsizing. It had offered workers at the Mansfield plant buyouts to leave voluntarily, a foreshadowing of the layoffs that were soon to come. Hawkinberry accepted a $70,000 buyout and left the company.

Confused about where to start, he joined his wife and stepson at Columbus State Community College, enrolling in a three-year program to become a chef. Classes, which include preparing complicated dishes at the college's food lab, can run as long as five hours at a stretch, but Hawkinberry doesn't mind. Nor does he mind that he now earns a mere $11 an hour working in the pantry doing prep work for salads and other menu items at Martini's Modern Italian, a Cameron Mitchell restaurant. It's a steep drop from the $32 an hour he was making at GM. But it's worth it. He is finally on a path to a career he's passionate about.

"You would not believe how much happier I am now than when I was at GM," he says. "GM was never a career; it was always just a job."

The three-year chef apprentice program costs a total of around $12,000, including books, lab fees, and American Culinary Federation dues. Classes cost $79 per credit hour. For comparison, the Culinary Arts program at the Art Institute of Ohio, a branch of the for-profit Art Institutes of America, costs $467 per credit: nearly six times as much. The Columbus State program consists of 110 credit hours, compared with 96 cedit hours for the Art Institutes program.

As if raising a family, working full-time and taking a full slate of classes wasn't enough, Hawkinberry started a catering business on the side. A graduation party he catered last summer led to sixteen additional inquiries about future events.

With car makers like GM closing plants and slashing jobs, rust belt workers are increasingly turning to community colleges to help them reinvent their careers. David Wayne, a spokesman for Columbus State Community College, says the school has seen a 24.2% increase in enrollment among students ages 25 to 34 in the past year. Demand has been so great that it actually presents a problem: to make room for all the students, Columbus State is now holding some classes at a nearby institution.

Meanwhile, Hawkinberry continues to dream of becoming a chef at a high-end restaurant, but he realizes that his age may hold him back. "By the time I've got the knowledge and experience, I'll be in my mid-sixties and I don't wanna be running a line when I'm that old," he says.

The success he's had with his catering business -- combined with the low overhead and risk that comes with that model -- has him thinking he may continue that pursuit post-graduation.
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