Even during the darkest days of the U.S. auto industry, when industry giants GM and Chrysler faced bankruptcy in 2009 and threatened to take hundreds of supplier firms with them, the Detroit Auto Show was still a place to see innovative car designs and the latest in automotive technology.
Back then, however, the Motor City’s annual celebration of its hometown industry wasn’t much of a place to go job-hunting. Tens of thousands of people working in design, engineering and production had already been laid off; and hundreds of thousands more jobs were at risk.
Four years later, it’s a different story.
Just ask Kaz Adomkaitis, a Ford information technology staffer. We spotted him cruising Cobo Hall at this year’s auto show sporting a T-shirt with an aggressively upbeat message: “We’re hiring! ASK ME!”
So we did. What kind of workers is Ford looking for? “Product development, information technology, purchasing, and some hourly positions,” Kaz told DrivingGrowth.org. “Pretty much everything, but those are the major ones.”
Is the need for new fuel-efficient technology driving Ford’s expansion, we wondered? “Absolutely,” said Kaz. “The majority of our hiring is product development. That’s the wave of the future, so we’re really looking to beef up those areas.”
Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s President for the Americas, said as much when the company announced in early January that it would hire 2,200 salaried workers in 2013. “As we expand our product lineup of fuel-efficient vehicles,” said Hinrichs, “we need more people in critical areas ‚Äì such as in a range of engineering activities, vehicle production, computer software and other IT functions.”
Ford is hardly alone. Fuel efficiency of the U.S. motor vehicle fleet reached a record 23.8 mpg in 2012, according to analysts at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute. GM reports it has now sold over a million vehicles which achieve better than 30 mpg.
As reported by the ClimateDesk.org, the Detroit Free Press and other news organizations, current and new models on display at this year’s Auto Show are moving towards new federal 54.5 mpg standards, while still delivering performance capabilities demanded by U.S. consumers.
GM introduced a new electric Cadillac at this year’s auto show, harnessing the technology developed for the Chevrolet Volt. Chrysler is showing off several new Jeep models which break the 30 mpg barrier, once unheard of territory for an SUV. Ford made a media splash with the Atlas, a concept version of the best-selling F-150 pick-up truck, equipped stop-start technology and aerodynamic features intended to boost fuel efficiency.
The latest wave of high mileage, low-emission vehicles will save money for consumers, reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and cut down on the pollution which leads to global warming. They’re also creating work for auto industry recruiters like Kaz Adomkaitis, as Ford and other companies add new hires to meet new demand.
A few examples:
- 3,600 jobs saved at GM’s Lake Orion factory, where the company re-tooled to produce the Chevy Sonic, which tops out at 40 mpg highway when equipped with a manual transmission. It’s the first sub-compact built in the U.S. decades. Leading off its auto show coverage, the Associated Press highlighted the Sonicas an example of GM’s financial, product and employment rebound from 2009 to 2013.
- 3,500 hundreds jobs added in Louisville, Kentucky, where Ford is building the newly-designed Escape SUV, which reaches 33 mpg on the highway when equipped with an EcoBoost engine. “We had 1,100 people in the plant, eight months later we had 4,600,” says Gary Martin, a member of UAW Local 862 who was at the Auto Show to promote the Escape. “You see more and more of them on the road,” he told DrivingGrowth.org. “We’re extremely busy, working three crews.”
- 300 jobs added in Smyrna, Tennessee, where Nissan has started production of batteries and vehicles for the all-electric Leaf. The company received a $1.4 billion U.S. Department of Energy loan for the project, which includes the nation’s largest lithium-ion battery plant. Company officials say more jobs may be added, depending on market demand.
- 50 jobs added, $23 million invested in Marysville, Ohio, where Honda will begin building a new model of the hybrid Accord later this year. It’s the third Honda hybrid built in North America.
- 40,000 new hires projected at U.S. auto suppliers in 2013, according to the Center for Automotive Research. Fitch Ratings, a global credit rating agency, says auto parts suppliers ‚Äì especially those with expertise in powertrains, drivetrains and electrification — will be big winners as automakers work to meet new 54.5 mpg standards. Denso, a Japanese parts supplier, will invest $1 billion in the U.S. and looking at a plan to hire 400 new workers in Battle Creek and Southfield. The company is benefiting, reports the Detroit Free Press, from a push towards lighter automotive components, which reduce weight and conserve fuel. Denso’s new generation of automotive radiators, for example, weigh 30 to 40 percent less than previous models.
With consumer demand rebounding and an industry-wide push for new fuel-saving technology, it’s not a bad time to be in the business of making cars and trucks. “Before it wasn’t so much fun,” recalls Ford’s Adomkaitis. “The economy wasn’t so good, and we had to cut a lot of people. Now, we’re trying to hire back and fill the ranks again.”
Roger Kerson is a Michigan-based media consultant for labor unions and environmental organizations. He was formerly the director of public relations at the United Auto Workers.