Auto boom: 15,000 new jobs in Michigan?

Posted on January 26, 2012

Automotive jobs are coming back, especially in Michigan, but no one expects to see the peak of 2000 anytime soon, if ever again.

The U.S. new vehicle market is expected to grow 41% from 2010 to 2015, forecasting firm IHS Automotive says. That’s second only to China’s 48%.

“The American auto industry is back,” President Barack Obama said Tuesday night in his State of the Union address.

He is partly right.

General Motors, Ford and Chrysler all plan to add jobs in Michigan, which stands to benefit more than any other state. Nissan, BMW, Honda, Toyota, Kia and Mercedes-Benz also are hiring. Suppliers are looking to add engineers and technical people, but at a more gradual pace.

About 15,000 auto-related Michigan jobs could be created this year, said Sean McAlinden, economist at Ann Arbor’s Center for Automotive Research. That would double the jobs added from 2009 to 2011. Even so, it would all represent just 15% of the 203,800 Michigan auto jobs lost from 2000 to 2009.

Landing one of these jobs won’t be easy. Chrysler has 10,000 applications for 1,100 jobs its Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit will add next year. Autoworkers need more computer and other technical skills than ever before.

“There are jobs out there,” said Anthony Harrison, 41, a laid-off skilled tradesman from Saginaw. “I just want to make a decent wage and work.”

Technical skills a roadblock as auto industry looks to hire

Automakers plan to hire new workers amid growing concerns that many applicants lack the required technical skills needed in today’s leaner manufacturing environment.

Job growth for the Detroit Three — which promised last fall to create 20,500 jobs — is driven by more flexible and cost-competitive labor contracts with the UAW. But finding enough skilled workers is proving to be a challenge. Honda, BMW and Nissan also plan to hire workers.

Neil DeKoker, president of the Original Equipment Suppliers Association, said suppliers are having a hard time finding engineers with the right background.

Thousands of engineers and line workers were laid off in recent years, but many took buyouts and moved out of Michigan. Other available workers often don’t have the blend of industrial and mechanical engineering skills that companies seek.

“We’re definitely in need of some engineers and are having a difficult time finding the right people out there,” said James Voeffray, vice president of sales and marketing for GKN Driveline, which has a research center in Auburn Hills.

Suppliers cautious

In Michigan, automakers and suppliers could add as many as 15,000 jobs this year, said Sean McAlinden, senior economist for the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

The bulk of those jobs will come from suppliers operating many factories at full capacity as they scramble to hire skilled workers.

Americans bought 12.8 million cars and trucks in 2011, up 10.3% from 2010. This year, analysts expect sales will increase another 8%, to about 13.8 million.

Even so, suppliers, which had to rapidly downsize during the recession, are reluctant to hire more workers and risk another downturn.

Lear, the Southfield-based manufacturer of automobile seats and other components, added about 700 employees in Michigan last year, bringing its Michigan payroll to about 3,100. That’s a sizable chunk of its 7,500 employees in the U.S. and Canada. Lear has its headquarters, technology center, six plants and two joint ventures in Michigan.

Further growth for the company is dependent on the economy, contracts from automakers and how well vehicles that use Lear seats and other components sell, spokesman Mel Stephens said.

In Michigan, suppliers and automakers are looking to fill engineering and other technical positions.

Hyundai plans to hire 50 people to staff a new environmental testing center at its technical center in Superior Township. Nissan plans to hire 150 employees at its Farmington Hills research and development center, and it expects to hire a total of 1,000 hourly and salaried workers in the U.S. this year.

Fierce job competition

With the national unemployment rate at 8.5% and Michigan’s rate at 9.3%, competition for auto jobs is fierce.

Ford was overwhelmed last July when more than 16,000 people showed up at the Kentucky employment office seeking 1,800 jobs at the Louisville plant.

In Detroit, Chrysler is planning to add 1,100 workers at its Jefferson North Assembly Plant in early 2013 and has recently reopened its Conner Avenue Assembly Plant. But Chrysler already has more than 10,000 applications for those jobs.

Politicians of all stripes seem to agree that attracting back manufacturing jobs that were lost to China, India and other emerging markets is a laudable goal. But robots and computers that have made U.S. manufacturing so competitive also have eliminated many of those jobs.

For example, in 2001, General Motors’ Willow Run Customer Care and Aftermarket center employed 380 people to distribute parts to dealers, said Barbara O’Leary, bargaining representative for UAW Local 174.

Today, with the flow of parts returning to pre-recession levels, the plant is operating with only 150 people. Bar-code scanners and dealers’ ability to order parts online have transformed the jobs to something similar to those found in a Walmart or warehouse. Even though the workers there make the UAW’s second-tier wage of about $15 an hour, workers uncomfortable with the new technology are potentially in jeopardy.

“The automation is destroying our jobs,” O’Leary said. “We’re dealing with an aging work force that is being pushed out. And no one from the (UAW) international is giving us any support.”