Chrysler, Ford among automakers hiring again

After years of shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs, the auto industry is showing signs it may have hit bottom and is ready to hire again.

Several automakers announced “help wanted” this week at the big annual auto show here, though the numbers wouldn’t begin to replace the jobs lost.

Among them: Chrysler, fresh from bankruptcy court, and Ford, hiring in Michigan. Toyota is hiring in Texas; Volkswagen is staffing a new plant in Tennessee; and Kia is hiring in Georgia.

Driving the hiring: optimism for a mild recovery in new car sales this year. U.S. new vehicle sales in 2009 were 10.4 million, the lowest since 1982. But the year finished up, and the Center for Automotive Studies predicts 2010 sales will rise to 12.4 million.

The hiring “is encouraging,” said Harley Shaiken, an auto labor expert at the University of California-Berkeley. “But it also reflects how far jobs sank in the industry.”

Still, he says, auto hiring could add the “psychological boost” the U.S. needs to climb out of recession.

Automaking and parts jobs fell from 1.1 million in 1999 to 561,900 in November, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

Just halting the job-loss slide is a small victory, said CEO Ed Whitacre of GM, which isn’t hiring, yet.

Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Chrysler and of Italy’s Fiat, talked here of a shortage of staff to develop future products: “We need to have engineers. We just don’t have enough.”

Also hiring:

•Ford Motor. Even as it continues a buyout offer for veteran union workers, Ford announced that it will add 1,000 jobs in hard-hit Michigan as new plants open to make battery packs and other parts for hybrid and electric cars.

Toyota. Its San Antonio plant is hiring 850 as a second shift returns next month and they prep for a new Tacoma pickup, said Mike Goss, external affairs manager for Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing.

 •Volkswagen. VW is sifting through a flood of applications for 1,700 jobs at the plant it’s building in Chattanooga, Tenn., to make a replacement for the Passat, spokesman Peik Von Bestenbostel said.

Kia. The South Korean maker is adding a shift — doubling jobs to 2,500 — at its plant in West Point, Ga., which just started making Sorento crossovers, spokeswoman Joanne Mabrey said.

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