Baltimore could be in line for hundreds of well-paying -- $19 an hour or more -- manufacturing jobs with great fringe benefits, thanks to a graying of the nation's auto industry work force.
The Big Three automakers -- General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. -- will likely hire more than 250,000 people between now and 2003 as their aging work force begins retiring in vast numbers, according to a study by the University of Michigan released last week.
"The industry hasn't been hiring at that level since the 1970s," said Brett Smith, a researcher at the university's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation and co-author of the study.
According to the study, 43 percent of the Big Three's work force is 45 years of age or older. On the factory floor the average age is even higher: Last year 40 percent of the assembly line workers were older than 50 -- the consequences of United Auto Worker contracts that required the most recently hired to be the first to go as the automakers shut factories and slashed thousands of jobs in the 1980s and early 1990s.
As a result, Mr. Smith said, about 30 percent of domestic auto workers are approaching the 30 years of service needed for retirement regardless of age.
"We don't know the number," he said, "but we know that a huge number of these people will take the 30-and-out option.
"A lot of these people took jobs with auto plants fresh out of high school when they were 18 or 19. They will be 48 or 50 and many will retire to start second careers. They take their pensions and take other jobs as auto mechanics or something else," Mr. Smith said.
It's too early to say just how many new auto assembly jobs will open at GM's Baltimore plant or at its assembly plant in Wilmington, Del., or the Chrysler plant in Newark, Del., that employ about 400 Maryland workers.
"I don't know how many the plant here will be hiring in the future, but if they ever put out a 'help wanted' sign, it would create a massive traffic jam," said Rodney A. Trump, president of Local 239 of the UAW, which represents the Baltimore plant's 3,100 hourly workers. "There would be such a stampede there wouldn't be any place for them to park."
The appeal, according to Mr. Trump, would be jobs that pay considerably more than most others in the region along with better benefits and the security of long-term employment.
Mr. Trump said that workers from GM's Wilmington plant could end up taking jobs on Broening Highway as the result of a scheduled closing this year for retooling.
When the Wilmington plant reopens in 1997 with a redesigned Chevrolet Malibu rolling off the line, it will not require as many workers, Mr. Trump said.
"Any workers in Wilmington that are laid off will have the right to transfer to Baltimore to fill any openings we have here. This situation may not create a lot of jobs for unemployed Baltimoreans," he said. "It will depend upon how many transfer from Delaware."
In addition, Mr. Trump said, the Baltimore plant's move last year, under pressure from the union, to add 490 part-time workers who receive no benefits also has reduced the average age of the work force.
"A year ago 75 percent of our people were nearing retirement age," said Mr. Trump. "Now that is probably about two-thirds."
Another unknown is how many current workers with 30 years service will choose to retire, said Jeffrey S. Kuhlman, a spokesman for the Baltimore plant.
"There is no requirement that workers retire after 30 years of service," he said. Some may continue to work for 35 or 45 years."
Mr. Kuhlman said the age of the work force at the Baltimore plant is fairly consistent with GM overall. He said that based strictly on 30 years of service, about 500 workers are currently eligible for retirement.
Even if the Big Three hire 250,000 new workers, it is very likely they will have fewer employees in 2003 than they have today, said Mr. Smith.
"Not every job is going to be replaced on a one-to-one basis," said the university researcher. "Our estimate is that 88 percent of the vacancies created by someone leaving will be filled. There will be a net loss of about 29,000 jobs."
Mr. Smith said that Ford and Chrysler will likely replace jobs on a one-to-one basis, but not GM, which is still under competitive pressure to reduce the size of its total work force and produce vehicles more efficiently.
Moreover, any hires that GM makes in Baltimore may upset the work force at other manufacturers in the region, including those that currently supply parts to the van assembly plant.
"The Big Three pay such high wages, they will get the cream of the manufacturing crop when they hire," said Mr. Smith. "Workers at manufacturing plants all around Baltimore will leave to take $19-an-hour jobs at GM plant. This has been a huge problem in Michigan and it could be a problem in Baltimore."
Mr. Smith suspects that a majority of any new hires at the Baltimore plant, which produces the Chevrolet Astro and GMC Safari vans, will come from the companies that have set up plants in the metropolitan area to supply the GM plants with such products as seats, dashboards and structural components.
"Workers at these plants are usually well-trained. The Big Three has insisted that they be well-trained. They [Ford GM and Chrysler] would rather pick up these people than take their chances on someone coming out of high school with no work experience," he said.
"My guess is that GM will hire many of its new workers from its group of suppliers and the new jobs will be created at the suppliers that usually pay $8 to $12 an hour."
Workers applying for assembly line jobs also will need different skills than were required an earlier generation. "They may not need calculus," said Mr. Smith, "but they are going to need good high school math skills. And they are going to need much better communication skills than current workers.
"Today, most plants operate in small teams and communication skills are critical. Workers are going to need good writing and speaking skills," said Mr. Smith.
Mr. Kuhlman said an assembly-line worker will go through three or four interviews before being hired. "The factory job today is not what it used to be 20 years ago," he said.