Downsized, but not out of demand

Times Staff Writer

After spending most of his working life on an assembly floor at Ford Motor Co., Harold Jackson wasn’t expecting many offers as he trudged into a job fair at the union hall.

Here he was, a 40-year-old factory worker in a state that has lost about 110,000 auto jobs over the last six years.

But John Riddle, a recruiter for CSX Transportation Inc., pressed forward out of the crowd to shake his hand. “Ever thought about moving to the East Coast? Ever wanted to be a train conductor?”

After Riddle finished his spiel, a recruiter from the U.S. Secret Service stepped up, touting the wonder of government service, pointing out that such jobs couldn’t be outsourced to India and that no Japanese competitor could underbid the work.


Soon, instructors who train casino dealers were courting Jackson with visions of fat tips and flexible hours.

“I had no idea there were so many options,” Jackson said.

After decades of being kicked around by foreign competitors and laid off by the hundreds of thousands by their U.S. employers, the autoworker has unexpectedly become one of the hottest commodities in industrial America.

Last week, Ford announced that 38,000 factory workers had agreed to take buyout and early retirement offers to leave their jobs as soon as January, walking away with payouts of as much as $140,000 each. Nearly 35,000 General Motors employees took buyouts over the summer.


Michigan is suffering through the longest stretch of job losses since the Great Depression, and the outlook for autoworkers is expected to remain grim, according to a recent report by the Research Seminar in Quantitative Economics at the University of Michigan.

From now through the end of 2008, the state’s manufacturing sector is expected to lose 11.5% of its remaining workforce, seven in 10 of these jobs from the auto industry, the report said.

But for employers outside the Rust Belt, the bounty of former autoworkers is pure gold. For generations, these workers have epitomized the industrial work ethic, putting in long hours on often mind-numbing tasks involving complex machinery.

“There’s a huge pool of people that know how to work hard, have enough skills that they can be retrained and are hungry for a job,” said Kathryn Blackwell, a corporate spokeswoman for Union Pacific Railroad. Company recruiters have attended several Midwestern job fairs in search of replacements for its own aging work force.


“Considering the economy’s doing well in other parts of the country, what company needing workers wouldn’t see this as a prime opportunity?” Blackwell said.

Squeezing through a dirt-streaked crowd of fellow autoworkers freshly clocked out of their factory shifts, Corey Wilson wandered the packed United Auto Workers Local 600 hall. Every few steps, recruiters stuffed tchotchkes into his hands -- along with job applications.

Have a free mug. By the way, electricians are wanted in Florida. Take this pen. Did you know that welders are needed in Wyoming? How about a slice of pizza? You can use your Ford buyout money to open a Little Caesars franchise in the Southwest.

Overwhelmed, Wilson -- who has worked on a Ford assembly line for five years -- stepped away from the crowd and found a quiet corner.


Framed black-and-white photographs hung along the walls around him: autoworkers marching in 1932 to demand jobs and emergency relief from Ford; police attacking the protesters; and bodies littering the streets.

Suddenly, a recruiter stepped up, blocking Wilson’s view.

“What are you looking for?” asked Robert Gale, who was seeking students for Home Building Workshops Inc. “What do you want?”

Wilson, 36, will leave his Ford assembly line job next year with $100,000 in buyout money, no health insurance and no idea of what to do with the rest of his life.


His reply was simple: “Opportunity.”

But leaving Michigan to take advantage of job offers sometimes isn’t easy.

Couples find themselves scrambling to land jobs in the same city. And cuts in the workforce here have dragged down property values and slowed home sales.

Blackwell -- who worked in media relations at Ford and DaimlerChrysler AG before she and her husband headed to Omaha in 2001 so she could take the Union Pacific job -- said she has tried over the years to sell friends back home on the idea of following her.


Few have been willing to make the jump.

“I’ve really had to talk up Nebraska. We don’t have any lines at restaurants. We don’t have traffic. There’s a lot of money here, so there’s heavy support for cultural things,” Blackwell said. “Sure, the salaries aren’t as high as you can make in the auto industry. But there’s stability.

“But when you’re working for an auto company,” she said, “you consider yourself part of a family that built the American dream. Leaving that dream behind is too much for a lot of people.”

Other recruiters have enjoyed more success. Campbell County, a rural part of northeast Wyoming where natural gas and coal production is booming, has hosted several job fairs in Michigan this year. More than 100 residents have left the Wolverine State for the Great Plains, said Ruth Benson, executive director of the Campbell County Economic Development Corp.


She’s planning another Michigan fair in March, as well as trips next year to Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio.

“The Midwesterners are hearty, blue-collared folks. They’re our kind of people,” Benson said. “Now that we’re getting them here, the question for us is whether they’ll stay here for the long term, or whether the draw back home will be too strong to ignore.”