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Big Three Hang Out `Help Wanted' Sign

MICHAEL SMITH is frustrated. The 37-year-old Detroiter knows the American auto industry is on its way to earning record profits. He also knows that despite a high school diploma and some time in college, he cannot find the high-paying auto-assembly-line job he has been seeking.

It is a problem facing many in the Motor City. Not all that long ago, almost anyone could get a job bolting cars together. It was back-breaking work, but it guaranteed perhaps the best blue-collar wages and benefits in the country.

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As a result of a series of economic downturns and rising foreign competition, however, the Big Three automakers have not hung out the ``Help Wanted'' sign in nearly 15 years. Since just 1990, the General Motors Corporation's hourly employment rolls have plunged from 325,000 to 260,000.

For job hopefuls like Mr. Smith, however, there is finally some good news: With auto sales fast on the rise, the Big Three are hiring again. But competition for those jobs will be fierce.

Chrysler Corporation is expecting to create 6,000 jobs. The automaker's new product lines have led to a big surge in sales. Chrysler Chairman Robert Eaton recently revealed plans to increase production 17 percent over the next three years. The $1.8 billion expansion plan adds third-shift operations at several plants and speeds up the line at other factories.

``We have to strike while the iron is hot,'' Mr. Eaton announced March 3. ``If we don't move now, we might miss opportunities for improved sales in North America. At the same time, we could lose jobs that new sales could bring.''

Chrysler is not the only one hiring. ``We expect to create between 10,000 and 12,000 new jobs between now and [1996],'' notes Peter Pestillo, the Ford Motor Co. vice president who oversees employment and training operations.

Many of those jobs will be created at Ford's light truck plants, which are struggling to keep up with record demand. But the bulk of the new employees will be hired to counter attrition.

The last time the Big Three hired in any significant numbers was 1979. And in the recession of the early 1980s, those with low seniority were laid off. So most of today's autoworkers have 20 to 30 years of seniority. Between now and the end of the century, roughly 75,000 people or up to one half the workers at Chrysler and Ford are expected to retire or quit.

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Even the nation's troubled automotive giant, General Motors, will have to cope with attrition. However, in order to improve productivity, GM will not replace everyone who leaves.

``For every two jobs'' on the line a decade ago, ``one will remain,'' notes David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

Chrysler and Ford have already made most of the cutbacks needed to improve productivity. At Ford's Atlanta assembly plant, which produces the hot-selling Taurus, there are about 2,500 employees, down from more than 4,000 in the past.

But to achieve such high levels of productivity - and quality - the Big Three have had to make tremendous investments in retraining their workers. Employees have to sit through training sessions, read manuals, and pick up some fairly sophisticated concepts, like statistical process control.

``We're hiring at the hourly level with the same level of precision we used to use to hire at the salaried level,'' Ford's Mr. Pestillo says.

But the Big Three will not have to worry about filling their new jobs. When Chrysler recently added a third shift at its Windsor, Ontario, minivan plant, it was swamped with 13,000 applications for 900 new spots.

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