DETROIT - The auto industry is about to go on a hiring spree as car makers and parts suppliers race to find engineers, technicians and factory workers to build the next generation of vehicles.
The new employees will be part of a larger, busier workforce. From coast to coast, the industry is in top gear. Factories are operating at about 95 percent of capacity, and many are already running three shifts. As a result, some auto and parts companies are doing something they've been reluctant to consider since the recession: Adding floor space and spending millions of dollars on new equipment.
"We're really bumping up against the edge," says Michael Robinet, managing director of IHS Automotive, which forecasts auto production. "So it really is brick-and-mortar time."
The auto industry's stepped-up hiring will help sustain the nation's job growth and help fuel consumer spending. On Friday, the government said U.S. employers added 175,000 jobs in May, roughly the monthly average for the past year and a sign of the economy's resilience.
At 7.6 percent, U.S. unemployment remains well above the 5 percent to 6 percent typical of a healthy economy. Growth is still modest, in part because of higher taxes and government spending cuts that kicked in this year and weak overseas economies. But the housing market is strengthening, and U.S. consumer confidence has reached a five-year high.
The auto industry's outlook is bright. Vehicle sales for 2013 could reach 15.5 million, the highest in six years. To meet that demand, automakers must find more people. Hundreds of companies that make parts for automakers have to hire, too, just to keep up.
"As volume goes up, we will really need to add heads," says Mel Stephens, a spokesman for Lear Corp., which makes automotive seats.
From January through May, automakers and parts companies hired 8,000 workers, a relatively slow rate. But the pace is picking up. The Center for Automotive Research expects the industry to add 35,000 over the full year.
The hiring plans are widespread. Chrysler Group LLC, Honda Motor Co., General Motors Co., Mercedes-Benz and Ford Motor Co. plan to add more than 13,000 people this year.
Large parts companies such as Lear, BorgWarner Inc. and TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. are hiring at factories and research centers. Smaller suppliers are adding jobs as well.
The auto business has helped keep the economy afloat while Americans wait for the rest of the business world to start hiring. Since 2009, 1 in every 4 manufacturing jobs added in the U.S. came in the auto industry, says Daniel Meckstroth, chief economist for the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation, a manufacturing trade group. The auto industry is just under 7 percent of U.S. manufacturing jobs.
Car companies and parts makers created 167,500 jobs from the end of the recession in June 2009 through May. At the same time, U.S. auto sales rose from a low point of 10.4 million in 2009 to an annual rate of more than 15 million so far this year.
Chrysler's comeback gave Jeff Caldwell the confidence to leave a human resources consulting firm. Caldwell joined the company in February as an assembly line supervisor at a Jeep Grand Cherokee factory in Detroit. He supervises 100 workers who build the SUV's chassis.
"I knew Chrysler was moving in the right direction," says Caldwell, 29, who was born in Detroit and always had an interest in cars. "They kind of reinvented themselves, and I really wanted to get in while I could."
Among the hiring planned for this year:
-- Chrysler will add more than 3,500 workers this year at factories in Indiana, Ohio and Michigan to make transmissions and to build Jeeps and Ram pickups.
-- Ford expects to hire 2,200 salaried workers in information technology, product development and manufacturing. Plus the company is hiring 1,400 factory workers and recalling another 2,000 laid-off employees, in Michigan and Missouri.
-- GM is hiring 4,000 engineers and computer professionals at four technical centers in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and Texas to develop software and other innovations.
-- Honda is adding at least 500 jobs this year at factories in Ohio, Indiana and Alabama as it moves more production to North America.
-- At TRW Automotive, recruiters are looking for 50 engineers in the Detroit area to work on new safety features such as a system that warns drivers when large animals are in their path.
Smaller companies also are joining in. Automotive business at Waukesha Metal Products in Sussex, Wis., is so strong that the company is near its capacity to make metal parts for axles, drive shafts and interiors. It's adding $1 million worth of equipment near Milwaukee and building a plant in Mexico to be closer to companies it supplies.
Most industry analysts predict that U.S. auto sales will rise gradually during the next five years. Estimates for this year range from 15 million to 15.5 million, compared with 14.5 million a year ago. LMC Automotive, a Troy, Mich., forecasting