For U.S. Autoworkers, Future Hinges on Adaptability

After many layoffs and the closing of many GM plants, autoworkers still employed must adapt to changes to carry out GM's mandate to bring the Volt electric car into production.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 2009

WARREN, Mich. If the electric car he is working on at this moment represents General Motors' hopeful vision of its changing direction, then Tom Goddard may be the new face of the American autoworker, someone who after 24 years at GM takes nothing for granted, sees his job as tenuous and prides himself on building his skills in hopes of survival.

Two years ago, Goddard took stock of the ailing corporation and the precariousness of union jobs here in Michigan and asked whether he might be able to work on the Chevrolet Volt, GM's much ballyhooed electric car, still in the pre-production stage and not scheduled for sale until late 2010. In response, one of his supervisors wondered whether they ought to be part of the Volt project, voicing skepticism about the vehicle's long-term chances.

"We need to get involved in this," Goddard recalls telling the supervisor. "This is going to be the future."

Now part of a team of about 1,000 hourly and salaried workers involved in a high-stakes race to bring the Volt into production at a GM facility in Warren, the 59-year-old Goddard says he sees signs that some workers understand the urgency of changing their routines and the culture of the workplace. "Some guys who know I like to work with computers will say to me a little defensively, 'How do you do that? I've never been trained to do that.' And I'll just kind of get to the point and say, 'Do you want to know how to do that?' And if they do, I'll show them. Most do."

He shrugs. There are limits to how far he will go; he does not want to be a nuisance. "I guess some would never ask," he adds. "Some people are just predisposed to being curious about things and others want to be outdoors with their boat or motorcycle, I guess. They just can't seem to get interested. They're stuck in their ways and really don't want to change. There's a lot of talent there not being used, I guess."

Critics of the auto industry express dismay over such explanations. They contend that, as painful as change might be for some veteran workers, a zest for knowledge is a prerequisite for the success of American car companies. The old plant order, these critics argue, must yield to new models that will create a better trained group of laborers adept at working on vastly more sophisticated cars such as the Volt.

"We don't have a large enough knowledgeable workforce," says Ann Marie Sastry, an engineering professor at the University of Michigan and the head of a joint project between the university and GM that has been training a group of the company's engineers in advanced battery technology. The hope is that the engineers' new expertise will find expression in the Volt and other electric cars to follow.

"Will a lot of autoworkers enter programs and receive retraining?" Sastry asks. "I don't know. I can say this: Autoworkers' jobs are going to change everywhere. There will be chip technologies, solar technologies. This is going to be an economy dominated by knowledge workers, not by somebody who we think of as being on an old assembly line."

She is blunt when assessing the future of most middle-aged workers who are not trained in new technologies. "I don't know where that autoworker goes," she says. "You have to be aggressive and get new skills for most of these jobs in the future. Racing for the bottom is a mistake for the country. If we say people are going to perform only a single task on a line, and not utilize intellectual skills, that's the wrong approach."

Building Skills

Like even the smallest of auto factories, the shop that houses the pre-production operations of the Chevy Volt prototypes is huge, as big as three football fields. Its size serves as a reminder of the mammoth ambitions and risks involved in the launch of any hyped automobile, particularly one from a teetering company running out of cash and chances to prove its worth.

Having long served as an embryo for GM vehicles, the plant is not as busy a place these days, but the dreamers still come through it, and the Volt team is just one more. A constant for Goddard, who once worked on Cadillacs here, is the concrete floor, concrete as thick and hard as concrete can get, hard enough to support millions of tons of steel and tires, but concrete that wears on many workers' legs and feet as a day moves along.

Born with club-feet, Goddard is often in pain, but he resolved long ago that his condition would not stop him. As with most union positions, Goddard's nondescript job title, assembly inspector, obscures the arduousness of his task in helping to create Volt prototypes. Short-armed and only 5-foot-5, Goddard must reach more than the average worker when dipping around and beneath such things as dashboards to tinker and build, and two decades of stretching and straining in odd positions have taken their toll.

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