Stepping into the workspace of Pioneer Magnetics feels like stepping back into a different era or – if not for the faded American flag stuck in a worker’s pencil mug – a different country.
Wrinkled fingers thread thin cables through circuit boards. Between empty chairs and vacant desks, a few bespectacled immigrants peer through oversized magnifying glasses. Silently working, they know a technical language developed by engineers as they construct custom power suppliers that will ship to large electronics companies all over the United States.
Pioneer is one of the last manufacturing facilities in Santa Monica. Spread out between two buildings in Bergamot Station big enough to hold 650 employees during their heyday, the hundred-or-so employees left have survived lay-offs and globalization. To stay competitive, the multi-million dollar company has offshored the bulk of its manufacturing to China and Mexico, where owner Jerry Rosenstein estimates he pays about $4 an hour per worker, including shipping costs.
Nowadays, he relies on his remaining American employees to fulfill last minute and custom orders at this Santa Monica headquarters.
Now once again, their jobs may be on the move.
“I don’t see Pioneer being here a year from now. I just don’t,” Rosenstein said during a recent tour of his manufacturing plant on the corner of Nebraska and Berkeley.
“We’re being forced out.”
After nearly 40 years in Santa Monica, Rosenstein’s business has faced ups and downs before. In the end it seems, it’s all come down to parking.
With new start-ups and small businesses moving to his neighborhood near the 26th Street Expo Light Rail Station, parking is at a premium. His business has only four parking spaces. He can no longer get away with sharing a lot with a neighbor – the nearby school and architecture firm now need those spots for themselves.
Some employees have resorted to parking in West Los Angeles where there are fewer restrictions or in metered spots, getting up from their desks every hour or so to feed the meter. To Rosenstein, it’s no way to run a business.
“We’ve lost out on potential employees who were high level engineers because of parking,” Rosenstein said, explaining those skilled workers don’t want to deal with the frustration. The Expo Line has provided little relief to his workers who commute from as far away as Palmdale, Valencia, Torrance, West Covina and Alhambra for jobs that pay between $12 to $15 an hour.
“When he started operations at Pioneer back in the day, Bergamot was a totally different place,” Peter James, Santa Monica’s senior strategic planner, said in an interview about Rosenstein’s situation. James says parking has become a major challenge as creative businesses move into the neighborhood off Olympic Boulevard. The workforce has densified and competition for space is greater.
While some businesses have worked around the problem by offering valet services to employees or leasing spaces at the nearby arts complex for a premium, two separate projects to build nearby garages are years from realization.
James admits City infrastructure in the area has failed to keep up with the rapid growth of the private sector. The Economic Development Department, the Mobility Division and the Planning Department have all tried to solve the problem, according to City officials.
“We have worked with him extensively over the years,” City spokeswoman Constance Farrell said. “He is one of the last manufacturing businesses in Santa Monica. We value our businesses of all sizes and types.”
Without a solution in sight, Rosenstein has turned to Los Angeles County and the State of California to help relocate his business.
“They have got overboard to try to help me find ways in which we can still survive because they want to keep jobs here,” Rosenstein said. “But the competition is so great it’s a tough situation.
Rosenstein knows he will lose some trusted employees in the transition. To him, it’s just the reality of doing business. While Pioneer’s technology powers the electronics we use every day like television stations and computers, he feels he’s a tech company of the past.
“I know the world that were facing and we’re an Albatross. We’re old school.”