Chrysler expansion at Toledo Jeep plant exceeds its hiring promise

9/21/2013
BY TYREL LINKHORN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Employees work on putting in the suspensions in the ‘flex deck’ area on the new Cherokee line, which spurred the hiring increase.
Employees work on putting in the suspensions in the ‘flex deck’ area on the new Cherokee line, which spurred the hiring increase.

Chrysler Group LLC has added more than 1,800 jobs this year at its Toledo Assembly Complex, a significant boost to the city’s economy that goes far beyond what the automaker promised two years ago when it announced it would expand here to prepare for a new model.

The plant, which has the capability to build more than 400,000 Jeeps annually, now has more employees than it has had at any time in the last decade.

Considering the economic meltdown that nearly killed the U.S. auto industry, that’s nothing short of amazing.

“The fact is we went from 17 million cars in 2007 down to 9 million when the bottom fell out,” said Bruce Baumhower, president of United Auto Workers Local 12, which represents workers at the Toledo plant. “Many people said we’ll never see a number like that again. This year the industry’s on pace to do 16.1 million. It's indicative of the entire industry coming back.”

When Chrysler committed to spending $500 million to expand and upgrade the plant in 2011, officials said the improvements would bring 1,105 new jobs for a second shift to build the 2014 Jeep Cherokee.

Union officials had predicted the final tally would be higher than that, and Chrysler on Friday confirmed it has added 1,821 employees this year, bringing total plant employment to 4,003 people.

The majority of those hires were brought in for the second shift on the Cherokee, though many of them also support the Jeep Wrangler, which is built in a separate part of the plant.

After setting a record of 144,669 U.S. sales in 2012, Wrangler sales have continued to rise this year. Through August, sales were up about 12 percent.

Faced with more demand than the two-shift assembly line can handle, Chrysler has been trying to find creative ways to squeeze out more Wrangler production.

The new Jeep Cherokee models are likely to hit area dealerships by the end of this month.
The new Jeep Cherokee models are likely to hit area dealerships by the end of this month.

That led to the addition of a third shift in the plant’s Wrangler paint shop — an area that had been a bottleneck — and the addition of a tag-relief program earlier this year that enables the line to keep moving while workers take their regular breaks.

Both of those changes added to the number of new workers Chrysler needed and have been successful in helping the plant produce more Wranglers.

Chrysler hasn’t started selling the Cherokee yet, but the company says the new vehicle will reach dealerships by the end of this month. Officials hope the more refined, more fuel-efficient vehicle will help Jeep capture new buyers both in the United States and abroad.

With those two vehicles, the auto industry seems well-positioned to help carry Toledo’s economy into the future.

Though Toledo has long been an auto town, it wasn’t always clear that it would remain as such.

“Five years ago it was hard to imagine things would turn around for Toledo like they have,” said John Gibney, a spokesman for the Regional Growth Partnership.

Beyond just the impact for the workers, Mr. Baumhower said the jobs are good for the area as a whole.

“For the city it’s huge,” he said. “It has a major impact on tax collections for the city budget and on expendable income that’s being circulated throughout the community.”

Economic development officials say it’s rare to add so many jobs at one employer.

“In the past it was a new plant would bring in 1,000 to 1,500 jobs,” Mr. Gibney said. “We really don’t see that anymore. It’s more that companies will open satellite offices or distribution centers or regional manufacturing plants. To be able to capture this many new jobs at one facility is quite a feather in our cap.”

Of the new hires specifically for the second shift on Cherokee, Chrysler said 65 percent are men and 35 percent are women. Nearly three-quarters — 74 percent — are Ohio residents, while the rest are from Michigan.

Of those from Ohio, Chrysler said 53 percent live within the city of Toledo. The average age for second-shift hires was 31 years old.

For now, Chrysler is finished adding people in Toledo. The firm said the last new hires started Aug. 26.

Still, the union hopes the Toledo Assembly complex can offer even more to become the top plant in the nation.

“Our goal in Toledo has been and still is to become the largest assembly plant in the United States, and we’re almost there,” Mr. Baumhower said.

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: tlinkhorn@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.