Mr. Nguyen
Image: Daniel Root

h3. UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

To compensate for a dearth of young applicants from local high schools and community colleges, Gunderson has tapped the city’s growing immigrant labor pool. To help workers learn English, the company employs a language specialist who last counted 22 dialects—including Ukranian, Pacific Islander and various African tongues—spoken on the company’s factory floor.


Khiem Nguyen, 46, escaped Vietnam’s communist regime on a 30-foot-long boat in 1980. He started in Gunderson’s plate shop in 1986, stacking 40-pound steel sheets by hand while living out of his car. Within five years he was promoted to floor manager, and again in 1998 to shop foreman. He now oversees 22 workers who fabricate assorted parts that are welded to the cars. “Whatever it takes, I will do it,” says Nguyen. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 8, 12 or 16 hours.” Nguyen hears a similar refrain from other immigrant coworkers at Gunderson. “Most people here come from a third world country, where they have to work hard for a living, so they already have that built into themselves,” he says.