After 52 years, Grand Forks auto parts store employee retires, standing out from changing workforce trends
On May 28 John Stjern, whose wife, Cheryl, describes as a "master of hydraulic hose," retired from Advance Auto Parts, just off South Washington Street. Stjern began working there in 1962, when the business was called Grand Forks Supply. In the mid-1980s the store was bought by Carquest, and then again by Advance in 2014. Through it all, Stjern was a fixture there, and built up lengthy relationships with customers, some even coming from the Canadian province of Manitoba, in search of hard-to-find hydraulic components.
For the last 52 years, John Stjern has worked for the same auto parts store in Grand Forks. Recently retired, Stjern’s lengthy tenure there stands out from changing workforce trends.
On May 28 Stjern, whose wife, Cheryl, describes as a "master of hydraulic hose," retired from Advance Auto Parts, just off South Washington Street. Stjern began working there in 1962, when the business was called Grand Forks Supply. In the mid-1980s the store was bought by Carquest, and then again by Advance in 2014. Through it all, Stjern was a fixture there, and built up lengthy relationships with customers, some even coming from the Canadian province of Manitoba, in search of hard-to-find hydraulic components.
“I liked it,” Stjern said, standing in his work area at Advance, the space wall to wall with fittings of all kinds. “I like working, solving problems with hydraulics. If we don't have the right fitting I can usually put a couple together and make it work, until I can get the right one. The biggest problem is now they're looking for somebody to take over my job. We have another guy here but he needs some help, and I'm 69.”
Stjern stands in contrast to the notion that younger workers change jobs more frequently than older ones, and in a sense it’s true. According to a study from IBM’s Institute for Business, one in five workers changed jobs last year, and of those 25% identified as Millennial, and 33% are Generation Z. A February report from MSNBC notes that trend is expected to continue, as the nation opens up from the pandemic.
Kasasa, a Texas-based financial services and technology company, identifies Generation Z as people born after 1997, and Millennials, or Generation Y, born between 1981 and 1996.
But while the perception is that younger workers change jobs more frequently than older ones, the reality may be quite different. Job hopping while young isn’t exclusive to the latest generations, but is something each generation does as workers find a career that fits.
Stjern bucked that trend by getting a job at 17 and sticking with it because he liked it, not because he couldn’t change jobs. When asked if another employer had ever tried to “poach” him, Stjern said “Yeah, three times.” Two of those offers came when he was older than 60, and he decided he didn’t want to start over with a different company.
Fifty-two years working at the same company does stand out, said Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the East Grand Forks/Grand Forks Chamber. Wilfahrt said he regularly speaks to people who have worked for a company for 20, 30 or 40 years, but calling younger workers perennial job hoppers is a huge jump, and one that may not be correct.
“I think that's the perception that's out there, but I don't know if it's completely true, either,” Wilfahrt said. “It's obviously too early to know because they're all early in their careers.”
What has changed for younger workers, Wilfahrt said, are values. Younger workers want to feel appreciated and listened to, and want to feel relevant in the work that they do, whereas Baby Boomers wanted the security of a long-term job.
Dustin Hillebrand, workforce center manager at Job Service in Grand Forks, agrees. Hillebrand eschews using the oft-bandied term "Millennial" and instead prefers Generation Y. Those workers, he said, are willing to jump careers if it means feeling more fulfilled, and maybe getting a raise at the same time.
“Generation Y and Generation Z are more focused on what makes them happy, what makes them tick, compared to ‘I'm safe here, I'm going to keep the job,’” Hillebrand said.
And feeling appreciated doesn’t appear to be a problem for Stjern. Kevin Sackenreuter, district manager for Advance Auto Parts, said the company has some big shoes to fill. “He’ll definitely be missed,” Sackenreuter said.
According to Cheryl Stjern, her husband got into “retirement mode” a year ago, when he went to a four-day work week -- though that rarely happened. He continued working full time, especially during planting and harvest seasons. Advance, Stjern said, sells about 45,000 feet of hydraulic hose a year. He can eyeball the size of a hydraulic fitting, and when he can’t, he uses a 30-year-old caliper. “I lose it about once a year,” he said.
Stjern said he is considering getting back into golf, now that he’ll have the time for it, and maybe do some more fishing. He and his wife have had a place at Devils Lake since the mid-'90s. They are also looking forward to a month-long visit from his daughter’s family, and seeing their two grandchildren.
While ready to retire, Stjern said he’ll feel nostalgic for the work, and the people.
“I’ll miss the customers with hydraulics,” he said.