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Those auto manufacturing jobs are not coming back

May 2, 2017

Nobody would ever hire me to give motor vehicle advice. The climax of my career as a “car guy” came long ago in then-Communist Romania, where they made a dreadful little automobile called a Dacia. Romania was a hellhole back then, and I can’t imagine that anyone other than a corrupt high Communist official could buy one.

I was taken to a showroom, where, with portraits of Nicolae Ceausescu staring down from the walls, I did the Detroit thing. I kicked the tires, and opened and slammed the door -- which then somehow became unhinged. For a moment, I thought I might have found a truly unique way of ending up in the gulag. I didn’t, but that was the end of my career as a car critic.

But I do follow the industry, and did something that went against the trend earlier this year: I bought a new car.

I didn’t do this to impress the guys at the drag strip or make a statement; I did so because I drive a lot and I needed one. But automotive sales have slipped slightly overall since the first of the year. Sales of conventional cars are way down; truck and SUV sales are soaring.

I’m not sure what I bought. I was told it was a small SUV, though the registration says it is a station wagon. I don’t know whether it is really a foreign or domestic car either; it was made in Ohio by American labor for a company headquartered overseas.

What I do know is that the automotive industry is still critically important to our economy. I talked this week with my favorite industry analyst, Kristen Dziczek, the director of the industry, labor and economics group at Ann Arbor’s Center for Automotive Research.

Car is non-profit and non-political, and I wanted her to tell me whether President Trump’s policies could bring automotive jobs back from Mexico. The answer is no. She didn’t see how that could work. Even if we were to get all those jobs back, it would mean building highly expensive new plants, which would mean that when sales weren’t booming, the auto dealers would have to face highly expensive overcapacity – a factor in the 2009 industry crash.

Besides, new auto factories today aren’t anything Walter Reuther would recognize. They are filled with highly complex presses and robotics that takes considerable training to run – and, as Dziczek noted, the industry complains it already has a talent problem.

She also told me a suggested “border adjustment tax” on imported vehicles could be potentially bad for the industry. Some in Congress have been proposing this as a way to offset tax revenue losses from the huge corporate tax cuts the president is proposing.

But she told me they could add an average of almost $2,000 to the price of an average car, and shake up the market as well. What worries her most, however, is something totally non-political – more than three-quarters of all master tool and die makers are nearing retirement age, training new ones can take ten years, and few replacements are in sight.

Somehow, the industry has to attract young workers to the skilled trades, soon. Or we could plan on importing what are now vastly improved Romanian Dacias, in years to come.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.