Auto workers adjusting the chassis of the 2011 Chevrolet Silverado HD
It seems like just yesterday we were the bearers of nothing but bad news: plant closures, salary cuts, and countless layoffs. But today, the auto industry has turned the corner, and some car companies in the U.S. are on a hiring spree.
Why the sudden jump? Because after record low sales figures just two years ago, numbers are on the rebound. To keep pace with demand, companies are having to hire hundreds -- in some cases, thousands -- of new employees.
Some of the biggest staff jumps have been seen at automakers like Honda, which hired an additional 1,000 workers in Indiana to crank out a steady supply of its sensible, fast-selling Civic. Volkswagen's highly anticipated factory in Tennessee recently opened its doors to built the Passat, and with it came a workforce of 2,000 employees.
Detroit is enjoying a boom, too. In fact, General Motors is hiring an additional 2,500 workers to help build the steady-selling Chevrolet Volt. And the company plans to bring on at least 1,500 more employees over the next year and a half.
In all, since the Chrysler/GM bailout fiasco of June 2009, the U.S. auto industry has hired roughly 77,000 workers. The sector's total number of employees now hovers near 700,000 -- nowhere near the highs of 1,000,000 last seen in 2007, but well up from 2009's low point of 623,000. And that's to say nothing of parts and manufacturing jobs, both of which have also seen steep increases in workforce numbers.
A boom or a bubble?
As of June 30, total light vehicle sales in the U.S. had hit 6,332,566 units -- 12.8% above last June's year-to-date total of 5,614,022 and roughly in keeping with the industry's 12% employment growth. Some analysts are predicting that U.S. sales will top 13,000,000 this year, up from 11,600,000 in 2010. But can this uptick continue?
Those who argue "yes" point out that sales continue to climb even as consumers do better with managing credit. Folks are still buying cars, obviously, but they're cars they can afford. That, combined with high gas prices, might explain why small and midsize cars and SUVs are doing do well on the lots these days, while large cars and SUVs are the only segments sitting in negative territory (down 4.7% and 8.7% for the year, respectively).
What's even more remarkable is that sales are booming just as incentives have hit a low point. That bodes well for continued demand. And let's not forget that many automakers themselves are healthier these days -- leaner and meaner, with fewer brands and renegotiated union contracts to make labor more affordable.
On the other hand, those who argue that we're seeing an industry bubble point out that the U.S. economy as a whole is growing at a fairly anemic rate of about 0.2%. If other sectors don't keep pace with the auto industry, that's likely to impact auto sales down the line.
Futhermore, the housing sector -- generally perceived to be the bellwether of the economy -- is still limping along. Home prices continue to slide in many markets, and employment figures have tanked 8% since the highs of 2009.
We're not economists -- not trained ones, anyway -- but from our perspective, it looks like much of the auto industry remains chastened by the troubles of the recession. As conditions improve, we'll see if automakers can keep things moving slowly and steadily in the black, or if hubris gets the better of them and they veer back toward the red.