DETROIT -- For the first time since at least the 1930s, Ford Motor Co. employs more U.S. factory workers than its larger rival, General Motors.
Ford, after cutting its hourly work force by more than half from 2005 through 2011, has been on a hiring binge. It has added an average of 10 union jobs a day since 2011, company figures show, easily beating a target of 12,000 new jobs in that period.
While GM has just two-thirds as many UAW members as in 2007, Ford has now brought back all of the factory jobs it eliminated during the recession. Ford built about 125,000 more vehicles in the U.S. last year than it did in 2007, despite having seven fewer plants.
Ford had 50,703 U.S. hourly workers as of Feb. 1, according to a report from the UAW's Ford department. A GM spokesman said the company has about 50,300 U.S. hourly workers. Ten years ago, GM had about 21,000 more than Ford.
Meanwhile, the smallest Detroit 3 automaker, FCA US, has been on a hiring tear as well, adding about 14,000 hourly jobs since its 2009 bankruptcy, company figures show, bringing its total to nearly 36,000.
"They're all getting to be about the same size," said Kristin Dziczek, director of the labor and industry group at the Center for Automotive Research. "With incentives for insourcing, Ford was able to grow their employment here pretty fast."
Insourcing is the practice of bringing jobs in-house from suppliers. Ford's contract with the UAW exempts insourcing-related jobs from counting against its 20 percent cap on workers earning second-tier wages. Ford has insourced 3,361 jobs so far, representing nearly a quarter of the 14,398 entry-level workers hired since 2010.
"We've been able to bring in work that was traditionally done on the outside and do it competitively," said Adrian Price, director of Ford's manufacturing business office, which determines staffing levels and assigns products to plants. "When we put the plans in place four or five years ago, we weren't taking into account all the growth opportunity that we see now."
Other reasons Ford needs as many U.S. plant workers as GM:
- Ford builds fewer vehicles in Canada and Mexico than GM, while outproducing GM in the U.S. The U.S. accounted for 78 percent of Ford's North American production last year, vs. an estimated 61 percent for GM, according to the Automotive News Data Center.
- Ford has greatly increased its exports from U.S. plants to overseas markets, again due largely to the incentive that two-tier wages create.
Ford's latest round of hiring -- 1,550 jobs to be added by the end of the first quarter -- has pushed the company over its entry-level cap.
As a result, 55 workers in Chicago; Louisville, Ky.; and Kansas City, Mo., received a nearly 50 percent raise this month. In the coming weeks, 300 to 500 more, mostly in Chicago, are expected to have their wages bumped up from $19.28 an hour to the top-tier level of $28.50.
Of the 1,550 new jobs, 900 are to replace workers in Kansas City who transferred to the side of the plant that assembles the Transit van when Ford began building it last year. The rest are divided among three stamping and parts plants that support the aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup.
Ford said it needs to hire more workers because demand for the F-150 has been stronger than anticipated. But Price said the aluminum F-150 isn't any more labor intensive than the previous, steel version.
"We're able to build the new F-150 with the same labor that we were able to do it before," he said.
The plant chairman with UAW Local 249 in Kansas City, Todd Hillyard, wrote to his members on Facebook recently that he expects workers building the F-150 to be given "a lot of overtime" this year, meaning it will be "just like last year, when we couldn't build trucks fast enough."
Price said hitting the entry-level cap won't cause Ford to slow its hiring for the rest of this year. The cap and all other terms of the UAW contract are up for negotiation this fall.
Although Ford says it has added more than 15,000 jobs since 2011, the net employment gain was only about 10,000 because the larger figure includes workers who were previously on layoff but still counted as employees.
In contrast to Ford, GM's U.S. hourly work force has been relatively flat in recent years, despite announcing plant investments. GM says it has announced more than $11 billion in U.S. investment since its 2009 bankruptcy and that it expects to create thousands of jobs in the years ahead. This quarter, GM is adding 750 jobs for a new shift at its plant in Wentzville, Mo.
"It's all market-driven. We build to market demand," GM spokesman Bill Grotz said. "The head count hasn't fluctuated that much over the past few years, but we've invested a lot of money in our operations."
William LeFevre, the UAW archivist at Wayne State University Walter P. Reuther Library, said records dating to 1937 show that GM always had more members than Ford. Ford becoming the union's largest employer is a significant shift for the two companies, he said.
"They took the initiative to restructure early, and that really put them in a much stronger position," LeFevre said. "It's amazing to see the rebound."