Chrysler Corp., anticipating record profits for the second year in a row, yesterday announced that it will do its first off-the-street hiring since 1978.
The company said it will bring in 1,700 production workers -- including about 1,000 laid-off employes and 700 new applicants -- to do second-shift assembly work at its plant in Sterling Heights, Mich., near Detroit.
Chrysler currently builds LeBaron GTS and Dodge Lancer sports passenger cars on one shift at the Sterling Heights facility. The second shift is scheduled to begin Feb. 25, company officials said in an announcement in Detroit.
The nation's Big Three auto makers -- General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler -- all rehired a significant number of laid-off workers in 1984. But according to figures provided yesterday by Detroit-based Ward's Automotive Research, some 51,000 auto workers nationwide still remain on indefinite layoff.
Automotive analysts generally agree that, despite the boom of 1984, it is unlikely production employment in the domestic auto industry will ever again reach the record high of 782,000 workers set in 1978.
Computerized, highly automated machines, such as those found in Chrysler's Sterling Heights plant, will help keep employment down, analysts say.
Annual average domestic auto industry employment in 1983 was 582,400 workers, a 25.5 percent drop from 1978 levels.
Chrysler's annual average worldwide employment was 81,478 workers in 1983 -- a 10.5 percent increase over the 73,714 people the company had on its payroll the previous year. Most of that employment was in the United States and most of it involved hourly jobs.
Chrysler officials say privately that they are ambivalent about the company's change of fortune. On the one hand, they are clearly pleased. On the other, they say they do not want to grow fat and risk repeating the mistakes that propelled the company toward bankruptcy in 1979.
Chrysler lost $3.8 billion between 1978 and 1981. But the company was rescued from financial ruin by a combination of federally backed loans, labor concessions, price breaks from suppliers and brutal cost-cutting -- all of which helped Chrysler bring out a successful new line of cars at competitive prices.
The upshot was that Chrysler earned $261.6 million in the third quarter of 1984, more than 2 1/2 times the money the company made in the same period of 1983. That profit brought the No. 3 auto maker's earnings for the first nine months of 1984 to $1.77 billion, positioning the company to triple its record 1983 earnings of $701 million.
Continued high demand for Chrysler products is increasing pressure on the company to boost production and employment. Adding to the pressure are Chrysler's ambitious plans to turn out five new cars over the next 36 to 42 months, analysts say.
On a separate subject, company officials said Chrysler will delay building a second plant to produce its popular Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager mini-vans. Auto industry analyst James E. Harbour of James E. Harbour and Associates of Detroit, a Chrysler critic, said the company's decision was in response to a softening in demand for the so-called "garageable vans," a trend that will be damaging to Chrysler in the long run.
But Chrysler officials said their decision is simply cautionary. Both GM and Ford will have comparable small vans for the 1985 model year. Toyota Motor Corp. also has been doing relatively well in that market. There is no need, at this point, to increase mini-van production capacity in a market that is becoming crowded with other manufacturers, Chrysler officials said.