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Auto Makers Also Assemble Diversity


DETROIT — To see the changes roiling the American workplace, take a look at today's auto assembly line. That's where you'll find Kathy Orban, prototype for the auto worker of the future.

Besides being female--an oddity in Big Three auto plants just a few years ago--the petite, soft-spoken Orban is 37, considerably older than the typical factory-floor hire of two decades ago.

Then there's the fact that Orban has a two-year college degree and knows her way around a computer keyboard. She is comfortable working in teams and likes today's flexible work rules that allow her to learn different jobs.

Orban also is upwardly mobile--a huge difference from the auto workers of a generation ago. She sees the assembly line as a steppingstone to a more challenging future, not an end-of-the-line job.

Orban's varied resume helped her beat out hundreds of other applicants for the job she holds: installing the jack into Jeep Grand Cherokees at Chrysler Corp.'s Jefferson Avenue assembly plant on Detroit's east side.

She is at the forefront of a new generation of auto workers being hired at Big Three plants. Chrysler, Ford and General Motors will hire nearly 200,000 workers--43% of their current work force--in the next seven years to replace a huge bubble of retiring workers, according to the University of Michigan.

"I feel like a pioneer," said Orban, who works on the interior trim line where carpeting, padding and other parts are installed.

For Orban, a divorced mother of two whose work history is marked by unemployment and underemployment, landing a Big Three job--and a generous wage double her previous pay--was an unexpected break.

Although life on the assembly line often still is boring and stressful, it has helped Orban secure a spot in the nation's middle class while opening up new career advancement opportunities.

As her case clearly shows, workers now being hired are significantly different. They are being taken on at an older age--in their late 20s and 30s--and generally have more work experience.

The new hires are more educated--nearly all are high school graduates and more than a third have some college education, double the percentage of their predecessors. More of them are women. They're expected to have computer competency and good communication skills, and to be team-oriented.

"We're looking for workers who have entirely different skills sets than the people we hired 15 to 20 years ago," said Dennis Pawley, executive vice president of manufacturing for Chrysler.

Despite more than a decade of downsizing, auto assembly jobs remain highly sought after because they are among the highest paying in the manufacturing sector. With overtime, new hires can make $50,000 a year and veterans $65,000 or more. Auto workers receive some of the highest medical, pension and other benefits in the nation.

The auto makers view the current hiring binge as a golden opportunity to make fundamental changes in their work force and its interaction with management. No longer are workers hired merely for their able bodies; no longer do managers tell them to check their brains at the plant gate.

Just as hood ornaments and land yachts gave way to sleeker, more efficient cars, the auto makers now want workers better equipped to operate in today's fast-changing information-based economy. They are seeking problem-solving technicians, equally adept with a computer as a wrench.

"The auto makers want workers who can work in teams and focus on continuous improvement," said David Jones, chief executive of HR Strategies, an employment screening firm for the Big Three. "They look at candidates from several different angles. They don't have to be rocket scientists."

Working in an auto plant comes naturally to Orban, who grew up in Detroit. Her father and former husband both toiled in area factories. She got married while still in high school and worked in a plastics plant while rearing her two kids.

At the same time, she attended Macomb County Community College part-time. In a display of perseverance, Orban finally earned a two-year associates degree in auto design after 12 years.

Laid off from the plastics firm in late 1993, she submitted an application to Chrysler hoping to be one of several hundred workers hired for its Jefferson Avenue plant.

Orban was put through a battery of tests that gauged her math, reading and manual dexterity skills. Then she was subjected to a team-building assessment--an exercise in which a group of candidates are judged on their ability to work together to solve a minor manufacturing problem.

She passed easily. After a series of follow-up interviews, a physical and a drug test, Orban was offered a job in June 1994. "I was ecstatic," Orban recalled. "I was used to making $25,000 tops. I made almost $50,000 last year, double the money."

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