To the few hundred folks in Byrdstown, Tenn., Dr. Larry Mason is simply the only doctor in town.
But to Hutchinson-FTS Inc. he is a secret weapon - and a top recruiter - in the company's constant struggle to keep its two local factories fully staffed.
Dr. Mason routinely advises unemployed and underemployed patients to seek work at Hutchinson, which makes automotive hoses at the plants.
'It's my community obligation,' Dr. Mason explains.
Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. is trying to keep its plants fully staffed in part by simplifying manufacturing operations so that they don't require scarce skilled tradespeople.
Stanley Electric U .S. is offering maintenance technicians a 5 percent wage hike if they upgrade their skills in classes after work. And American Showa Inc. is moving an Ohio production line 100 miles because the destination county has a 0.6 percent higher unemployment rate than the current plant's location.
Like these companies, automotive suppliers across the country are trying everything they can think of to find, hire, acculturate, train and retain good hourly workers. Until lately, employee retention was nearly a lost discipline, as employers tried to keep payrolls lean through most of the Nineties boom.
But with auto sales at record levels and the economy booming, employers are facing the tightest m arket in a generation. With thousands of experienced workers hired during the 1960s easing into retirement, many suppliers have been forced into a perpetual hiring mode over the past few years.
'I'm actually starting to get calls f rom competitors that I normally wouldn't talk to, and we find out we all have the same pain,' said Brent Jackson, hourly employment manager at Lacks Enterprises Inc., a plastic parts manufacturer that employs more than 1,500 produ ction workers at a dozen facilities in and around Grand Rapids, Mich.
'The stories you hear are all the same: There's no magic potion out there,' Jackson said.Suppliers started reporting problems with tight labor markets a few years ago, said Brett Smith, senior research associate at the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.
FEELING THE PINCH
The university's recent study of 140 Michigan-based suppliers found that 85 percent were affected by the tight labor market. The most critical shortages were in the skilled trades, the study concluded.
Another recent survey of 80 suppliers in the Dayton, Ohio, area by A.T. Kearney Inc., the consulting arm of Electronic Data Systems Corp., reached the same conclusion.
Employers' 'No. 1 problem was the availability of workers, particularly of skilled tradespeople,' said Kearney's Jim Mateyka, an automotive analyst.
The suppliers' woes mirror the increasingly tight labor market among automakers.
At a recent conference this month in Traverse City, Mich., Peter Pestillo, Ford Motor Co.'s vice chairman, said the auto industry stands 'on the brink of a potentially devastating shortage of talent on the plant floors, in our salaried ranks and at our dealerships. At every level, in all job categories, we need more good people, and we need them today.'
Still, labor shortages among automakers are not nearly as dire as among suppliers, Smith said.
The trend has partly wiped out the temporary edge that many suppliers gained in the 1980s by setting up plants in the South, where labor was more plentiful - and cheaper - than in the industrial Northeast and Midwest.
It is exacerbated by what suppliers generally agree is a poorly educated work force - even among high-school graduates, Smith says.
The smaller the supplier, the more likely the difficulty the se days, because small companies often can't compete with larger suppliers on wages and benefits. 'It's a real challenge - especially for Tier 2 and Tier 3 suppliers,' Mateyka said.
'I've asked suppliers why they don't raise wage s, and they say that their customers simply won't allow them to pay any more,' said Smith of the University of Michigan. 'Some argue that it's such a tight labor market that if you raise wages even moderately, it may not make eno ugh of a difference.'
Smith notes, for example, that one tiny Michigan supplier hired more than 150 hourly workers last year for his plant, but retained only 10 percent of those hard-won recruits.
The shortage has led s uppliers to recruit non-traditional workers - employees who might not have gotten a second look in years past.
It had been more than 30 years since Carl Reed worked in a Dana Corp. plant in Hamtramck, Mich., inspecting ball joints a s they came off the production line. But it still counted as experience when Mexican Industries Inc. hired the 58-year-old retired cop as a production worker during a local job fair earlier this year.
'I was working for a temp serv ice, but I was tired of spending the rest of the time watching `As the World Turns,' ' said Reed.
'I wanted a job close to the East Side where I live, and everything here fell in line,' he said.
Reed hopes to become a quality-control inspector for Mexican Industries, a supplier of armrests and other interior components in a federal empowerment zone in Detroit. In fact, Reed has urged relatives and friends to apply at Mexican Industries as well.
There is no s hortage of individuals applying for jobs, says Dalia Garcia, Mexican's human-resources manager, wielding a six-inch stack of applications. 'But good people are still hard to find. We'd still like them to have a little bit of backg round in manufacturing.'
The squeeze afflicting Lacks is typical. As it picked up new contracts in recent years, the company added more than 300 unskilled hourly jobs. At the same time, it suffers from an annual turnover rate of mo re than 30 percent.
As a result, Lacks was forced to hire more than 640 workers last year and expects to hire even more this year.Jackson has used a variety of tactics to find those workers. In the end, he fell back on the oldest ta ctic of all: higher wages.
Lacks raised its starting wage 35 cents an hour last autumn, and is considering a similar increase this year. The pay increase was needed to differentiate Lacks from what Jackson calls the 'clog' of local plastics suppliers that, like Lacks, were paying wages of $9 to $11 an hour.
Lacks also has spent large sums running Help Wanted ads in the local newspaper, with mixed results.
'Open up the paper on any given Sunday, and everyone is in there,' Jackson explains. The company didn't do much better last fall with a costly 60-second spot on a local TV-network affiliate that advertised jobs for skilled trades. In yet another tactic, Lacks listed jobs on an emplo yment Web site operated by the State of Michigan.
BACK TO BASICS
Ironically, Jackson has found that the most effective promotional medium is the simple roadside sign - those four-foot high, mobile units with plastic letters in black and red.
'You can tell people you're hiring, and what your pay rate is, pretty quickly,' he says. 'When people come in and I ask how they ended up here, an awful lot of them tell us it was just the sign.'
In another common tactic , companies offer bonuses to employees who refer friends, family or neighbors for a job.
Hutchinson-FTS, a maker of water hoses, offered $100 bonuses to any employee at its Reading, Mich., plant who makes a job referral. If the job applicant stays at least 90 days, the employee gets the cash.
After generating a trickle of applicants, Hutchinson-FTS added an extra $100 bonus if the new recruit stayed 120 days. Soon after it fattened the bonus, Hutchinson hired six new workers.
'It works well especially because Reading is relatively rural, and everyone knows one another,'says Paul Hutchinson, the Troy, Mich.-based chief executive of Hutchinson-FTS.
HELP FROM THE DOC
But none of those progr am-based measures has proven as effective for Hutchinson-FTS, Campbell says, as a bit of old-fashioned influence peddling in the person of Dr. Mason. A few years ago, the physician helped bankroll Fayette Tubular Systems' decision to set up shop near the Kentucky border in Pickett County. He financed the construction of two small factory buildings, then sold them to the company.
Now Dr. Mason refers jobless patients to Hutchinson, the current owner of Fayette Tubular.
'As I see patients, part of their personal history is whether and where they're employed,' says Dr. Mason, who receives no bonus from Hutchinson. 'So I naturally point them to a good potential job.'
Lacking their own ve rsion of a Dr. Mason, many suppliers acknowledge that the availability of workers in a given region can determine future expansion plans.
For example, American Showa wants to move an assembly line from its factory in Sunbury, Ohio, to a second plant in Blanchester, Ohio. That's because Blanchester is situated in Clinton County, where the current unemployment rate is 3.8 percent, compared with 2.4 percent in Delaware County, which includes Sunbury.
Because both areas essentially are at full employment, the difference in jobless rates may not seem all that significant, concedes Gary Gombita, general manager of administration for the Japanese-owned maker of steering pumps, gear boxes and s hock absorbers.
'We are looking at the numbers and what resources are available in each town and the difficulties that temp agencies are having in each place,' he said. 'They're a valuable litmus test.'
KEEPING IT SIMPLE
Meanwhile , Delphi Automotive Systems is simplifying its manufacturing system to lessen the need for skilled - and scarce - tradespeople.
'We tended to overcomplicate and overautomate manufacturing processes in the '80s,' said James Bertrand, Delphi's president of operations. 'Our thrust today is to make it much simpler and easier. Often automation can be maintained ... by the people who are actually using the equipment.'
To simplify jobs further, Delphi has asked p roduction workers to help design work assignments. 'We'll optimize the idea in a laboratory environment now before finalizing the design of the equipment and ordering it,' Bertrand explains. 'Years ago, all of that work would ha ve been done in some salaried area by an engineering group and just dictated to the floor.'
Delphi's new approach already is proving so effective that its greatest need among the 3,000 or so people it hires each year is for unskilled workers rather than for tradespeople.
However, even 'unskilled' workers need more skills than their peers from 20 or 30 years ago. Nowadays, employers routinely test job applicants' math and reading skills, and try to determine whether they like to work cooperatively.
'It's critical today more than ever that all employees have to have problem-solving capabilities,' says John Brogowicz, GenCorp Inc.'s human resources director.
GenCorp, which is based in Akron, Ohio, makes sealing systems and weather strips. The company employs more than 4,000 hourly workers and has hired 400 of them in the last year. For many suppliers, keeping good employees is proving just as difficult as finding them in the first place. Since suppliers tend to locate in clusters near the automakers, they suffer a lot of job-hopping by hourly workers seeking higher wages.
After waiting in vain for an uptick in unemployment, suppliers are be ginning to realize that they can't count on the business cycle to bail them out.
'They didn't see it as a long-term problem because they thought the industry soon would be entering its typical cyclical recession,' Smith said. 'But now they realize how wrong they were.'