Help wanted: Skilled auto workers

With carmakers in trouble, auto industry jobs in Michigan are scarce. But for some, there are opportunities elsewhere.

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By Jessica Dickler, staff writer

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NEW YORK ( -- As a contracting economy and slowing sales bring the U.S. auto industry to its knees, hundreds of thousands of auto workers find themselves either out of a job, or at risk of losing one.

Year to date, the auto industry has announced 110,610 job cuts, the highest of any industry with the exception of finance, according to a report released Wednesday by global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

On Friday, both General Motors (GM, Fortune 500) and Ford Motor (F, Fortune 500) announced additional job cuts going forward.

The Center for Automotive Research, a Michigan think tank, issued a study Wednesday that showed that another 250,000 jobs could be lost in the next year if GM, Ford and Chrysler were forced by the downturn to shutdown half of their U.S. plants.

And the industry might not bounce back, warned Bob Brusca, an economist with FAO Economics. "[Automobile] companies are getting smaller, they are laying people off that will never be hired back," Brusca said.

So what happens to all those assembly-line workers, technicians and machinists whose skills are specialized for making cars?

Seeking new opportunities

There might not be quite as many out-of-work auto workers as people anticipate, according to David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research.

With the aging of the average auto worker, a majority of the people that are going to leave or be forced out of the auto industry will take their buyout packages and retire, Cole said.

The mass exodus of "boomers" in the months ahead, Cole explained, could equal or even exceed the industry's contraction.

For others out of a job but in need of another, positions in automobile manufacturing in Michigan and other Midwest states will be scarce.

But, "there's always a demand for the qualified, reliable employee," said Rhonda Arledge, area director for staffing company Adecco. "And there are industries out there that are still hiring," she said.

In the region, jobs for hourly workers may be available building nuclear power facilities in addition to other alternative energy plants including water, wind and solar, according to Lars Luedeman, the head of automotive analytics at Grant Thornton.

The aging infrastructure in the upper Midwest may provide job opportunities building roads and bridges, Luedeman said. Although, like alternative energy, that will require funding going forward from the local, state and Federal government.

According to Luedeman, coal and copper mining operations in Michigan and Minnesota may also hire if demand for critical natural resources provides support for the mining, metals and minerals industry.

Otherwise, "people will have to move elsewhere" to find opportunities in less-cyclical industries with broader appeal, Brusca said.

And the good news is, while auto manufacturing jobs may be waning in Detroit, engineers, machinists and skilled trade workers - also including carpenters, welders, plumbers, electricians, masons and cabinet makers - are still in high demand in other areas of the country, according to a survey by employment services firm Manpower Inc.

"The Detroit area has been hit hard, supply is high and demand is low in the area," said Doug Karr, a regional director at Manpower. "In Houston, demand is high and supply is low."

According to Karr, skilled CNC machinists, welders and other trade workers are in hot demand in Gulf Coast states like Texas and Louisiana where there are more manufacturing jobs in the oil and gas industry than there are people.

For example, those with experience assembling auto parts or welding could construct oil pipes or cranes, he said.

"As skilled workers [in the region] are retiring, it may take two people to do the job that the tenured person was doing," Karr said. And with fewer skilled trade workers entering the workforce that means much more job availability.

"If a hundred qualified CNC machinists moved to Houston we could probably find all 100 of them a job in no time at all," he said. To top of page

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