Automotive Industry Workers

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Essential about this Profession:

School Subjects: Mathematics, Technical/shop

Personal Skills: Following instructions; Mechanical/manipulative

Work Environment: Primarily indoors; Primarily one location

Minimum Education Level: High school diploma

Salary Range: $27,000 to $40,000 to $100,000

Certification or Licensing: Voluntary

Outlook: More slowly than the average

DOT: 007, 620, 729, 806

GOE: 08 02 01, 08 02 03

NOC: 9482

O*NET-SOC: 51-10 11.00, 51-2031.00, 51-2041.00, 51-2091.00, 51 2092 00, 51 2099 00, 51 4011 00, 51 4041 00, 51 4121 00, 51 919700, 51 9199 00

OVERVIEW

Automotive industry workers are the people who work in the parts production and assembly plants of automobile manufacturers. Their labor involves work from the smallest part to the completed automobiles.Automotive industry workers read specifications; design parts; build, maintain, and operate machinery and tools used to produce parts; and assemble the automobiles.

HISTORY

In our mobile society, it is difficult to imagine a time without automobiles. Yet just over 100 years ago, there were none. In the late 1800s, inventors were just beginning to tinker with the idea of a self-propelled vehicle. Early experiments used steam to power a vehicle’s engine. Two German engineers developed the first internal combustion engine fueled by gasoline. Karl Benz finished the first model in 1885, and Gottlieb Daimler finished building a similar model in 1886. Others around the world had similar successes in the late 1800s and early l900s. In these early days, no one imagined people would become so reliant on the automobile as a way of life. In 1898, there were 50 automobile manufacturing companies in the United States, a number that rose to 241 by 1908.

Early automobiles were expensive to make and keep in working order and could be used to travel only short distances; they were “toys” for those who had the time and money to tinker with them. One such person was Henry Ford. He differed from others who had succeeded in building automobiles in that he believed the automobile could appeal to the general public if the cost of producing them were reduced. The Model A was first produced by the Ford Motor Company in small quantities in 1903. Ford made improvements to the Model A, and in October 1908, he found success with the more practical Model T. The Model T was the vehicle that changed Ford’s fortune and would eventually change the world. It was a powerful car with a possible speed of 45 miles per hour that could run 13 to 21 miles on a gallon of gasoline. Such improvements were made possible by the use of vanadium steel, a lighter and more durable steel than that previously used. Automobiles were beginning to draw interest from the general public as newspapers reported early successes, but they were still out of reach for most Americans. The automobile remained a curiosity to be read about in the newspapers until 1913. That’s when Ford changed the way his workers produced automobiles in the factory. Before 1913, skilled craftsmen made automobiles in Ford’s factory, but Ford’s moving assembly line reduced the skill level needed and sped up production. The moving assembly line improved the speed of chassis assembly from 12 hours and eight minutes to one hour and 33 minutes. Craftsmen were no longer needed to make the parts and assemble the automobiles. Anyone could be trained for most of the jobs required to build an automobile in one of Ford’s factories, making it possible to hire unskilled workers at lower wages.

For many early automotive workers, Ford’s mass production concept proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Demand was growing for the affordable automobile, even during the Depression years, bringing new jobs for people who desperately needed them. However, working on an assembly line could be tedious and stressful at the same time. Ford paid his workers well (he introduced the $5 day in 1914, a high wage for the time), but he demanded a lot of them. He sped up the assembly line on several occasions, and many workers performed the same task for hours at a frenzied pace, often without a break.

Such conditions led workers to organize unions and, through the years, workers have gained more control over the speed at which they work and pay rates. Many of today’s automotive industry workers belong to unions such as the United Auto Workers (founded in 1936). The industry continued to evolve with automotive technology in the 1940s and 1950s. American automobiles were generally large and consumed a lot of gasoline, but a strong U.S. economy afforded many Americans the ability to buy and maintain such vehicles. In Europe and Japan, smaller, fuel-efficient cars were more popular. This allowed foreign automakers to cut deeply into the American automobile market during fuel shortages in the 1970s. Automotive workers suffered job cuts in the 1980’s due to falling exports and domestic sales. Today, the industry has recovered from the losses of the l largely by producing vehicles that can compete with fuel-efficient, foreign- made ones. Also, trade agreements have encouraged foreign automakers to build manufacturing plants in the United States, creating new jobs for U.S. workers. The United States currently has about one-quarter of the world’s automobiles, some 128 million vehicles.

THE JOB

The term “automotive industry worker” covers the wide range of people who build the S million cars—about 14 percent of the world’s total—produced in the United States each year. Automotive industry workers are employed in two types of plants: parts production plants and assembly plants. Similar jobs are also found with companies that manufacture farm and earth-moving equipment; their workers often belong to the same unions and undergo the same training. Major auto mobile manufacturers are generally organized so that automobiles are assembled at a few large plants that employ several thousand workers. Parts for the automobiles are made at smaller plants that may employ fewer than 100 workers. Some plants that produce parts are not owned by the automobile manufacturer but may be independent companies that specialize in making one important part. These independent manufacturers may supply parts to several different automobile makers.


Automotive industry workers must have the physical capability to stand for long periods, lift heavy objects, and maneuver hand tools and machinery.

Whether they work in a parts plant or an assembly plant, automotive workers are generally people who work with their hands, spend a lot of time standing. bending and lifting; and do a lot of repeat work. They often work in noisy areas and are required to wear protective equipment throughout their workday, such as safety glasses, earplugs, gloves, and masks. Because automotive industry workers often work in large plants that operate 24 hours a day, they usually work in shifts. Shift assignments are generally made on the basis of seniority.

Precision metalworker is one of the more highly skilled positions found in automotive production plants. Precision metalworkers create the metal tools, dies, and special guiding and holding devices that produce automotive parts—thus, they are sometimes called tool and die makers. They must be familiar with the entire manufacturing process and have knowledge of mathematics, blueprint reading, and the properties of metals, such as hardness and heat tolerance. Precision metalworkers may perform all or some of the steps needed to make machining tools, including reading blueprints, planning the sequence of operations, marking the materials, and cutting and assembling the materials into a tool. Precision metalworkers often work in quieter parts of the production plants.

Machinists make the precision metal parts needed for automobiles using tools such as lathes, drill presses, and milling machines. In automotive production plants, their work is repetitive as they generally produce large quantities of one part. Machinists may spend their entire shift machining the part. Some machinists also read blueprints or written specifications for a part. They calculate where to cut into the metal, how fast to feed the metal into the machine, or how much of the metal to remove. Machinists select tools and materials needed for the job and mark the metal stock for the cuts to be made. Increasingly, the machine tools used to make automotive parts are computerized. Computer numerically controlled machining is wide spread in many manufacturing processes today. Tool programmers write the computer programs that direct the machine’s operations, and machinists monitor the computer-controlled process.

Maintenance workers is a general category that refers to a number of jobs. Maintenance workers may repair or make new parts for existing machines. They also may set up new machines. They may work with sales representatives from the company that sold the automobile manufacturer the piece of equipment. Maintenance workers are responsible for the upkeep of machines and should be able to perform all of the machine’s operations.

Welders use equipment that joins metal parts by melting and fusing them to form a permanent bond. There are different types of welds as well as equipment to make the welds. In manual welding, the work is controlled entirely by the welder. Other work is semi automatic, in which machinery such as a wire feeder is used to help perform the weld. Much of the welding work in automotive plants is repetitive; in some of these cases, welding machine operators monitor machines as they perform the welding tasks. Because they work with fire, welders must wear safety gear, such as protective clothing, safety shoes, goggles, and hoods with protective lenses.

Inspectors check the manufacturing process at all stages to make sure products meet quality standards. Everything from raw materials to parts to the finished automobile is checked for dimensions, color, weight, texture, strength, and other physical characteristics, as well as proper operation. Inspectors identify and record any quality problems and may work with any of several departments to remedy the flaw. Jobs for inspectors are declining because inspection has become automated at many stages of production. Also, there is a move to have workers self-check their work on the production line.

Floor or line supervisors are responsible for a group of workers who produce one part or perform one step in a process. They may report to department heads or foremen who oversee several such departments. Many supervisors are production workers who have worked their way up the ranks; still others have a management background and, in many cases, a college degree in business or management.

Books to Read

Aspatore Books Staff. Inside the Minds: The Automotive Industry—Industry Leaders Share Their Knowledge on the Future of the Automotive World. Boston: Aspatore Books, 2003.

Becker, Helmut. High Noon in the Automotive Industry. New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2006.

Braess, Hans-Hermann, and Ulrich Seiffert, eds. Handbook Of Auto motive Engineering. Warrendale, Pa.: SAE International, 2005.

Kimes, Beverly R. Pioneers, Engineers, and Scoundrels: The Dawn of the Automobile in America. Warrendale, Pa.: SAE International, 2004.

Maxton, Graeme P., and John Wormald. Time for a Model Change: Re-Engineering the Global Automotive Industry. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

 

REQUIREMENTS

High School

Many automotive industry jobs require mechanical skills, so you should take advantage of any shop programs your high school offers, such as auto mechanics, electronics, welding, drafting, and computer programming and design. In the core subject areas, mathematics, including algebra and geometry, is useful for reading blueprints and computer programs that direct machine functions. Chemistry is useful for workers who need to be familiar with the properties of metals. English classes are also important to help you communicate verbally with both supervisors and coworkers and to read and understand complex instructions.

Postsecondary Training

Many of the jobs in an automotive plant are classified as semiskilled or unskilled positions, and people with some mechanical aptitude, physical ability, and a high school diploma are qualified to do them. However, there is often stiff competition for jobs with large auto- makers like General Motors and Ford because they offer good benefits and pay compared to jobs that require similar skills. Therefore, if you have some postsecondary training, certification, or experience, you stand a better chance of getting a job in the automotive industry than someone with only a high school diploma.

Formal training for machining, welding, and tool-making is offered in vocational schools, vocational-technical institutes, community colleges, and private schools. Increasingly, such postsecondary training or certification is the route many workers take to getting an automotive industry job. In the past, apprenticeships and on-the- job training were the routes many workers took to get factory jobs, but these options are not as widely available today. Electricians, who generally must complete an apprenticeship, may find work in automotive plants as maintenance workers.

Certification or Licensing

Certification is available but not required for many of the positions in an automotive production plant. The American Welding Society offers several designations, including certified welding engineer and certified welding inspector to members who meet education and professional experience criteria as well as pass an examination. For precision metalworkers and machinists, the National Tooling and Machining Association operates training centers and apprentice pro grams and sets skill standards.

Other Requirements

Working in an automotive production plant can be physically challenging. For many jobs, you need the ability to stand for long periods, lift heavy objects, and maneuver hand tools and machinery. However, a person with a physical disability can perform some of the jobs in an automotive production plant. For example, a person who uses a wheelchair may work well on an assembly line job that requires only the use of his or her hands. Automotive workers should have hand and finger dexterity and the ability to do repetitive work accurately and safely.

EXPLORING

Do you enjoy working with your hands? Following complex instructions? Do you think you could do repetitive work on a daily basis? Are you a natural leader who would enjoy a supervisory position? Once you have an idea what area of the automotive industry you want to pursue, the best way to learn more is to find someone who does the ob and ask him or her questions about the work. Assembly plants are generally located in or near large cities, but if you live in a rural area you can still probably find someone with a similar job at a parts plant or other manufacturer. Even small towns generally have machine shops or other types of manufacturing plants that employ machinists, tool and die makers, inspectors, and other production workers. Local machine shops or factories are a good place to get experience, perhaps through a summer or after-school job to see if you enjoy working in a production environment. Many high schools have cooperative programs that employ students who want to gain work experience.

EMPLOYERS

Automotive industry workers can find jobs with both domestic auto- makers and with foreign automakers like Mitsubishi and Honda, which both have large assembly plants in the United States. Large assembly plants may employ several thousand workers. Parts production plants may employ fewer workers, but there are more of these plants. Assembly plants are generally located in or near large cities, especially in the Northeast and Midwest where heavy manufacturing is concentrated. Parts production plants vary in size, from a few dozen workers to several hundred. Employees of these plants may all work on one small part or on several parts that make up one component of an automobile. Parts production plants are located in smaller towns as well as urban areas. The production processes in agricultural and earth-moving equipment factories are similar to those in the automotive industry, and workers trained in welding, tool-making, machining, and maintenance may find jobs with companies like Caterpillar and John Deere.

Approximately 1.1 million workers are employed in the industry, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics—making it one of the largest manufacturing industries. The United Auto Workers Union, the largest union in the industry, currently reports 640,000 active members.

STARTING OUT

Hiring practices at large plants are usually very structured. Such large employers generally don’t place “help wanted” ads. Rather, they accept applications year-round and keep them on file. Applicants generally complete an initial application and may be placed on a hiring list. Others get started by working as temporary or part-time workers at the plant and using their experience and contacts to obtain full-time, permanent positions. Some plants work with career services offices of vocational schools and technical associations to find qualified workers. Others may recruit workers at job fairs. Also, as with many large factories, people who have a relative or know someone who works at the plant usually have a better chance of get ting hired. Their contact may put in a good word with a supervisor or advise them when an opening occurs.

New hires are usually expected to join the United Auto Workers (UAW) or another union. Unions help negotiate with manufacturers and deal with the company on a worker’s behalf.

ADVANCEMENT

Automotive production plants are very structured in their paths of advancement. Large human resources departments oversee the personnel structures of all departments; each job has a specific description with specific qualifications. Union rules and contracts further structure advancement. Longevity is usually the key to advancement in an automotive plant. For many, advancement means staying in the same position and moving up on the salary scale. Others acquire experience and further training to advance to a position with a higher skill level, more responsibility, and higher pay. For example, machinists may learn a lot about many different machines throughout their careers and may undergo training or be promoted to become precision metalworkers. Others with years of experience become supervisors of their departments.

EARNINGS

Salaries vary widely for automotive industry workers depending on their job and how long they’ve been with the company. Supervisors may earn $60,000 to $75,000 a year or more, depending on the number of people they supervise. Pay for semiskilled or unskilled workers, such as assemblers, is considerably lower, usually in the $27,000 range. Still, these production jobs are sought after because the pay is higher than that which workers may find elsewhere based on their skill level. The U.S. Department of Labor reports the following 2005 mean annual earnings for workers specializing in the production of motor vehicles, parts, and related equipment: first-line managers, $50,350; team assemblers, $41,560; machinists, $38,300; and welders, $28,650. Earnings are usually much higher for workers who are members of a union and employed by a Big Three automaker (General Motors, Ford, or Chrysler). Few of these workers earn less than $40,000 a year, and some earn as much as $100,000 a year because of mandatory overtime and six- or seven-day workweeks.

Workers employed by large, unionized companies such as Ford enjoy good benefits, including paid health insurance, paid holidays, sick days, and personal days. Large employers generally offer retirement plans and many match workers’ contributions to retirement funds. Automotive industry workers who work for independent parts manufacturers may not enjoy the comprehensive benefit programs that employees of large companies do, but generally are offered health insurance and paid personal days.

WORK ENVIRONMENT

Working as a production worker in an automotive plant can be stressful, depending on the worker’s personality, job duties, and management expectations. Assembly line workers have little control over the speed at which they must complete their work. They can generally take breaks only when scheduled. Norm Ritchie, a machine operator at a Chrysler parts plant in Perrysburg, Ohio, says the job can be stressful: “The pressure [on the assembly line] affects people in different ways. Sometimes people get pretty stressed out; other people can handle it.” Ritchie, who works on steering shafts, also says that noise is a concern in his area of the plant. He estimates that the noise level is about 90 decibels all the time. Automotive production workers must follow several safety precautions every day, including wearing protective gear (such as earplugs) and undergoing safety training throughout their careers.

OUTLOOK

Only a small amount of job growth is expected for the U.S. automotive industry for the next few years. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts employment growth of only 2 percent in motor vehicle manufacturing, 6 percent in motor vehicle parts manufacturing, and 8 percent in motor vehicle body and trailer manufacturing—all much lower than the 14 percent growth predicted for all U.S. industries.

Economic downturns and rising fuel prices could cause production slowdowns (especially for larger American-made cars with poor gas mileage) and subsequent layoffs for auto industry workers, particularly those who work for American manufacturers. Many manufacturers have also found it more cost-effective to move operations overseas, where unions are weak and labor is cheaper. However, the decline in employment among American-owned automakers has been balanced by new foreign-owned manufacturing plants that have been built in the United States. Today, many U.S. automotive workers are employed by foreign-owned automakers such as Honda and Mitsubishi.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

These professional societies promote the skills of their trades and can provide career information.

American Welding Society

550 Lejeune Road, NW

Miami, FL 33126-5699

Tel: 800-443-9353

Email: info@aws.org

http://www.aws.org

National Tooling and Machining Association

9300 Livingston Road

Fort Washington, MD 20744-4914

Tel: 800-248-6862

http://www.ntma.org

These are two of many unions that represent automotive production workers. They can provide information about training and education programs in your area.

International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers

9000 Machinists Place

Upper Marlboro, MD 20772-2687

Tel: 301-967-4500

http://www.iamaw.org

United Auto Workers

8000 East Jefferson Avenue

Detroit, MI 48214-3963

Tel: 313-926-5000

http://www.uaw.org

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