Companies from General Electric Co. to yogurt producer Chobani are adding U.S. workers, accelerating a rebound in hiring, as chief executive officers prepare for greater demand in a strengthening economic recovery.
Boeing Co. is bringing in more than 100 union machinists a week for a 60 percent boost in output by 2014. Nissan Motor Co. will expand in Tennessee with 1,000 people making lithium-ion batteries. And a GE executive was at a Kentucky appliance plant before dawn this month to greet some of 500 new employees.
“The next few years are going to be a different picture than what we saw in the last few,” said Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO and founder of South Edmeston, New York-based Chobani, which is building a 300-worker plant in Twin Falls, Idaho. “To get ready for this, we need to have our manufacturing capacity in place.”
The hiring reflects optimism among CEOs that the economy will continue to strengthen and more workers will be needed to meet demand. It may signal an end to a lockdown on job growth following the financial crisis that lingered even after the recession ended in June 2009, with economists estimating more new jobs created this year than any time since 2006.
Manufacturing, whether for GE refrigerators or Greenbrier Cos. rail cars, is a bright spot in a labor market still so weak that December’s unemployment rate of 8.5 percent was the lowest in three years. U.S. factory payrolls expanded by 225,000 jobs in 2011, more than double the total from a year earlier.
“The ground seems to be set for a pretty decent near-term outlook for manufacturing,” said Stephen Stanley, chief economist for Pierpont Securities in Stamford, Connecticut. “There’s still room for job growth there if demand continues to pick up.”
That’s a possibility at the U.S. unit of Germany’s Harting Deutschland GmbH, a maker of industrial connectors. CEO Rolf Meyer said his business probably will hire 20 more people in 2012, after doubling the workforce to 120 since the recession.
“We have a couple of large orders that we’re negotiating on in the broadcast and medical industries, and these will likely hit in the next five or six months,” said Meyer, who supplies customers such as GE, Siemens AG and Alstom SA from operations based in Elgin, Illinois.
Investors have taken note: The Standard & Poor’s 500 Industrials Index gained 23 percent through yesterday since the start of the fourth quarter, compared with a 15 percent advance for the broader S&P 500.
GE, based in Fairfield, Connecticut, will meet higher demand for more energy-efficient appliances with new production of water heaters and refrigerators in Louisville, Kentucky. A union agreement in 2010 to cut hourly starting salaries to $13 and to increase efficiency helped bring back work to the U.S. from China and Mexico.
“Throughout the first quarter, we’ll be bringing people in,” said Dirk Bowman, general manager of manufacturing for GE’s appliance unit who welcomed some new workers at a factory in Louisville, Kentucky, to clapping and cheering at 6 a.m. one day this month. “It feels great.”
The new U.S. workers at Nissan, Japan’s second-largest carmaker, will produce batteries for the electric Leaf compact built nearby in Smyrna, Tennessee. Chrysler Group LLC, the U.S. automaker majority-owned by Fiat SpA, will add a third shift at it Detroit plant that makes the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango sport-utility vehicles, creating 1,100 jobs.
Boeing, responding to airlines clamoring for more fuel- efficient jets, added 10,000 jobs last year as hiring in the Chicago-based planemaker’s commercial aircraft unit made up for shrinking defense employment.
New employees for Boeing’s Seattle-area plants are piling into orientation sessions held by the planemaker each Friday, said Tommy Wilson, a Machinists union official. The six-hour meetings, in an auditorium near Boeing Field, focus on policies from badge usage to parking, benefits and avoiding personal use of Internet access.
“They’ve been hiring like crazy,” said Connie Kelliher, a union spokeswoman in Seattle. “We’ve long since exhausted the people on layoffs and they’ve been new hires.”
Production increases at the world’s largest aerospace company are rippling out to suppliers such as Spirit AeroSystems Holdings Inc. and Rockwell Collins Inc. Wichita, Kansas-based Spirit boosted its workforce by 1,000 to 15,000 last year and will hire at the same pace in 2012, said Ken Evans, a spokesman.
The U.S. may add 1.7 million jobs this year, the fastest pace since 2006, based on economists’ estimates compiled by Blue Chip Economic Indicators.
Risks to U.S.
Faster payroll growth should spur a 2.3 percent expansion in the U.S. economy in 2012, according to the median estimate of 84 economists compiled by Bloomberg. Europe is projected to contract by 0.2 percent and China’s economy is forecast to cool to 8.5 percent growth from 9.2 percent in 2011.
The risk to the U.S. is that Europe’s sovereign-debt crisis may worsen or that China’s slowdown becomes more abrupt, said Stanley, the Pierpont Securities economist.
“The economy is not so strong that it’s invincible to shocks,” Stanley said.
Metlife Inc., the largest U.S. life insurer, said this week it will shut its mortgage-origination business, eliminating most of the 4,300 employees. Archer Daniels Midland Co., the world’s largest grain processor, plans to cut 1,000 jobs to trim costs.
Kurt Rankin, an economist at PNC Financial Services Group Inc. in Pittsburgh, expects job growth this year to average 135,000 a month, a pace at which it would take years for the economy to make up for the 8.7 million positions lost in 2008 and 2009.
“It would be a stretch to say we would be able to recover to pre-recession levels by anywhere before the middle of the decade,” said Rankin, who predicts the unemployment rate will end this year at 8.2 percent or 8.3 percent.
Hiring began to pick up in mid-2011 among employers seeking engineering and technology-related workers, said Jesse Harriott, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at Monster Worldwide Inc., the world’s largest online recruiter.
Some industries have remained mostly unscathed by the recession, including oil and gas, technology and precious metals. Gold miners are struggling to find qualified applicants, said Rob McEwen, CEO of U.S. Gold Corp. in Lakewood, Colorado. The labor pool dwindled in the 1980s and 1990s as weak metals markets deterred many would-be employees from mining schools, he said.
“You’re seeing very strong demand for engineers and geologists,” McEwen said.
Martin Holdrich, senior economist at Woods & Poole Economics Inc. in Washington, said the factory-hiring rebound suggests a recovery in manufacturing employment toward pre- recession levels of 14 million jobs at the end of 2006, from fewer than 12 million last year. Concerns that those losses would all be permanent were overstated, he said.
“Manufacturing is a lot like bacteria,” Holdrich said. “As long as you don’t kill them all, they’ll flourish again when the conditions are right.”