In the struggle to reshape itself, the North American auto industry cut its workforce by 51 percent between 2000 and 2012.
And now as it rebuilds its production, industry forecasters expect that the auto base will need to add 140,000 positions during the next four years — 80 percent of those jobs in the supply base, said Kristin Dziczek, director of the Center for Automotive Research's labor and industry group, during CAR's Management Briefing Seminars, held August 6-9 in Traverse City, Michigan.
With the baby boomers who once made up the employee backbone now entering their retirement years, automakers and suppliers are starting to look carefully at where they will find and how they will train and keep future workers.
It is an unexpected issue to face for an American economy that is also looking at high unemployment levels, but industry watchers, government officials and private companies alike say they need to find workers with the right skills.
Those skills range from computer numerical control operators at tooling suppliers to engineers and researchers for automakers.
"We have 80,000 open jobs in the state of Michigan," Governor Rick Snyder said. "If we could fill those, our unemployment rate would be lower by 2 percentage points."
Staffing company ManpowerGroup of Milwaukee said in a 2011 survey that 52 percent of employers were having problems filling critical positions. That number was up 14 percent from the previous year.
High demand for experienced welders has become so common it is almost a cliché, Dziczek noted, but the problem goes far beyond the simple fix of sending people to a welding class.
Sean Vander Elzen, senior manager for global hiring at Detroit-based General Motors Co., said the next generation of car buyers and potential employees — dubbed Millennials — are not as interested in cars as past generations were. Cars just mean additional costs to many of them, for insurance, for fuel, for payments and repairs.
Without that underlying interest in cars, carmakers will have problems enticing potential workers, he said.
Vander Elzen has been leading a team to reach those employees through new channels, including a partnership with GM and MTV that uses a Chevrolet Sonic in an advertisement showing the car doing a skateboard-style "kick flip."
"Manufacturing has been placed in a silo for years," said James Jacobs, president of Macomb Community College. "People thought that it was dirty and something that you had to do, not something you wanted to do."
In an effort to beef up training programs for future automotive workers, the state of Michigan has launched a feasibility study of a "German-style" apprenticeship program that would provide students with a chance to earn money and school credit, said Amy Cell, senior vice president of job enhancement for Michigan Economic Development Corp.
Macomb Community College has been recruiting recently retired skilled workers to come to classes and help students understand what will be expected, and what is possible.
The final piece to filling the skilled-worker pipeline, said Dziczek, may come from employers that are willing to change the way they filled jobs in the past. That could involve using social networks or mentoring students so they and their parents understand what they need to know.
The suppliers that made it through the recession already have changed the way they do business, to streamline production and bring new technology to the market, she said. They now need to translate those abilities to change the way they approach recruiting and training workers.