After a recession and restructuring that sent tens of thousands of workers to the curb, the U.S. auto industry's recovery has depended heavily on lean work forces toiling long hours.
Now, it appears, relief is on the way.
Showing increasing confidence in the pace and durability of the recovery, automakers are spending to restock depleted departments in core areas, such as sales, marketing, distribution, product planning and administration. They're also building up competency in fields such as information technology and digital marketing, and scouting for talent on college campuses and at nonautomotive businesses to fill new openings.
Last fall, Ford Motor Co. said it plans to add more than 5,000 U.S. workers -- including 3,300 salaried employees -- in 2014, a big step in the effort to backfill some of the automotive jobs that vanished during the recession. General Motors is amid a hiring binge that will add some 10,000 workers to its IT work force. And Chrysler, whose product-planning department was nearly depleted in the lead-up to its 2009 bankruptcy, is bringing in summer interns by the hundreds to help fill its engineering vacancies.
The automotive segment, including manufacturers and dealers, is still far below prerecession employment levels, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and some companies remain conservative with their hiring plans. But the recession-era mind-set of "keeping your job is the new raise" is giving way to a strong upward trend in hiring, with openings in a variety of sectors.
The auto industry is "recalibrating," says executive headhunter Steve Parkford. He sees digital communications, captive finance and regional dealer-facing positions as hot areas for job seekers.
"The auto companies are acquiring more midlevel executives, having staffed or reshuffled their senior ranks in the last couple of years," says Parkford, principal of Parkford & Associates in Long Beach, Calif. "Field organizations have turned over, and fresh blood is needed. There's a big effort to find the next generation of automotive executives."
Automakers also are scrambling for engineers to expedite vehicle improvements and new models, Parkford says. "On the manufacturing side, engineers of every aspect, especially in telematics, are in high demand."
Dealerships also are ramping up head count. "We are always looking for great salespeople and technicians, and have stepped up our recruiting at local universities, job fairs and vocational schools," says Marc Cannon, AutoNation's senior vice president of corporate communications and public policy.
In some cases, new jobs are going begging. At a meeting of the Japan-America Society of Indiana, executives from three major automotive suppliers -- Aisin Seiki, NTN Driveshaft and Enkei America -- said they are having problems filling many key positions at their southern Indiana operations.
"The unemployment rate in Indiana is 5.7 percent, but where we are, if you are looking for someone with engineering or technical skills, it's more like 3 percent," said Scott Turpin, executive vice president of Aisin Holdings of America.