Motor Vehicle and Parts Manufacturing Industries

Significant Points

Nature of the Industry[About this section] [To Top]

Despite news of plant closures and unemployed auto workers, the motor vehicle and parts manufacturing industry continues to be one of the largest employers in the country and a major contributor to our economy. Motor vehicle and parts manufacturing is constantly evolving to improve efficiency and provide products that consumers want in a highly competitive market, which at times may mean outdated plants are forced to close. It also means companies and workers must adapt more quickly to changes in demand and production practices so that new technologies can be implemented and work can be done on a number of different vehicles at one time. Teamwork and continual retraining are key components to the success of this industry and the ability of the workforce to adapt.

Motor vehicle and parts manufacturers also have a major influence on other industries in the economy as well. Building motor vehicles requires vast quantities of materials from, and creates many jobs in, industries that manufacture steel, rubber, plastics, glass, and other basic materials. It also spurs employment for automobile and other motor vehicle dealers; automotive repair and maintenance shops; gasoline stations; highway construction companies; and automotive parts, accessories, and tire stores.

Goods and services. The motor vehicles manufactured in this industry include automobiles, sport-utility vehicles (SUVs), vans and pickup trucks, heavy duty trucks, buses, truck trailers, and motor homes. It also includes the manufacturing of the parts that go into these vehicles, such as the engine, seats, brakes, and electrical systems. According to the Federal Reserve, over 8 million motor vehicles were assembled in the U.S. in 2008. Building and assembling the many different parts of a car or truck requires an amazingly complex design, manufacturing, and assembly process.

Industry organization. In 2008, about 9,100 establishments manufactured motor vehicles and parts. These ranged from small parts plants with only a few workers to huge assembly plants that employ thousands. By far, the largest sector of this industry is motor vehicle parts manufacturing. It has the most establishments and the most workers. Table 1 shows that about 7 out of 10 establishments in the industry manufactured motor vehicle parts—including electrical and electronic equipment; engines and transmissions; brake systems; seating and interior trim; steering and suspension components; air-conditioners; and motor vehicle stampings, such as fenders, tops, body parts, trim, and molding.

Table 1. Percent distribution of employment and establishments in motor vehicle and parts manufacturing by detailed industry sector, 2008
Industry sector Employment Establishments
Total 100.0 100.0
Motor vehicle parts manufacturing 61.5 68.4
Motor vehicle manufacturing 22.2 5.4
Motor vehicle body and trailer manufacturing 16.3 26.3

The next largest sector in terms of employment is motor vehicle manufacturing. In 2008, about 22 percent of all workers in the overall motor vehicle manufacturing industry were engaged in the assembly of motor vehicles. A large number of these assembly plants are owned by foreign automobile makers, known as "domestic internationals." These foreign automobile manufacturers open assembly plants in the United States to be closer to the U.S. market, avoid changing exchange rates, and reduce transportation costs.

A typical automotive assembly plant is divided into three major sections. In the first section, exterior body panels and the interior frame are assembled and welded together. This work is mostly performed by robots, but may also require some manual welding. During this stage, the body is attached to a conveyor system that will move it through the entire assembly process. Throughout the entire process, numerous inspections are performed to ensure the quality of the work.

The painting process comprises the second section of the assembly plant where bodies of cars pass through a series of carefully ventilated, sealed paint rooms. Here, the bodies are dipped into chemicals to prevent rust and seal the metal. Then the bodies are primed, painted, and sealed with a clear coat.

Final assembly of the vehicle comprises the third section of the automobile manufacturing process. Here, parts such as the seats, dashboard, and powertrain (engine and transmission) are installed. Although machines assist with loading heavy parts, much of the assembly work is still performed by team assemblers working with power tools.

The smallest sector in terms of employment is motor vehicle body and trailer manufacturing. In 2008, about one-fourth of establishments were engaged in this type of manufacturing. These establishments specialized in manufacturing truck trailers; motor homes; travel trailers; campers; and car, truck, and bus bodies placed on separately purchased chassis.

Recent developments. The U.S. auto industry has been severely affected by the recession that began in December 2007. New car sales fell considerably, which caused manufacturers to cut production and employment dramatically. In addition, two of the three domestic automakers entered bankruptcy in 2009, although they have since emerged. While the domestic automakers remain a critical part of the industry, motor vehicle and parts manufacturing is increasingly a global industry, with "domestic" vehicles produced using parts manufactured around the world and many "foreign" firms producing on U.S. soil.

Automobile technology is rapidly changing due to environmental concerns and regulation. More fuel-efficient vehicles, such as hybrid-electric cars that combine gasoline engines with high-capacity, energy-storing batteries, have quickly gained popularity in the industry. There has been some experimentation with full electric and alternative fuel vehicles, but these technologies have not yet become widespread, and research and development for new types of environmentally friendly vehicles continues.

Working Conditions[About this section] [To Top]

Hours. In 2008, about 29 percent of workers in the motor vehicle and parts manufacturing industry worked, on average, more than 40 hours per week. Overtime is especially common during periods of peak demand.

Work environment. Although working conditions have improved in recent years, some production workers still are subject to uncomfortable conditions. Heat, fumes, noise, and repetition are not uncommon in this industry. In addition, many workers come into contact with oil and grease and may have to lift and fit heavy objects, although hydraulic lifts and other equipment have eliminated much of the heavy lifting. Employees also may operate powerful, high-speed machines that can be dangerous. Accidents and injuries usually are avoided when protective equipment and clothing are worn and safety practices are observed. Additionally, companies use carefully designed work stations and physical conditioning to reduce injuries from repetitive motions.

Workers in this industry experience higher rates of injury and illness than do workers in most other industries. However, newer plants are more automated and have safer, more comfortable conditions. For example, cars on the assembly line can be raised, lowered, and sometimes even rotated to work on the bottom of the car or to adjust to the worker's height. Workers also typically function as part of a team, doing more than one job and, thus, reducing the repetitiveness of assembly line work.

As in other industries, professional and managerial workers normally have clean, comfortable offices and are not subject to the hazards of assembly line work. However, many supervisors and plant managers still need to visit the assembly line and face some of the same hazards as assembly line workers.

Employment[To Top]

Motor vehicle and parts manufacturing was among the largest of the manufacturing industries in 2008, providing 877,000 jobs. The majority of jobs, about 62 percent, were in firms that make motor vehicle parts. About 22 percent of workers in the industry were employed in firms assembling complete motor vehicles, while about 16 percent worked in firms producing truck trailers; motor homes; travel trailers; campers; and car, truck, and bus bodies placed on separately purchased chassis.

Although motor vehicle and parts manufacturing jobs are scattered throughout the Nation, jobs are concentrated in the Midwest and South. Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana combined account for almost half of all jobs in this industry. Other States that account for significant numbers of jobs include Kentucky, Tennessee, and California. Automotive employment is shifting away from its traditional base in the Midwest to the southeastern States.

Employment is concentrated in a relatively small number of large establishments. About 49 percent of all motor vehicle and parts manufacturing jobs were in establishments employing 500 or more workers. Motor vehicle manufacturing employment, in particular, is concentrated in these large establishments, whereas many motor vehicle parts manufacturing jobs are found in small- and medium-sized establishments.

Motor vehicle manufacturing corporations employ many additional workers in establishments that are parts of other industries. Often the jobs in corporate headquarters are in separate establishments and would be classified as part of a different industry. Likewise, workers in research and development (R&D) establishments that are separate from a manufacturing facility are included in a separate industry—for example, R&D in the physical, engineering, and life sciences. (This industry is covered in the section on scientific research and development services.) However, given the importance of R&D work to the motor vehicle and parts manufacturing industry, occupations and issues related to R&D are discussed in the following sections even though some of their employment is not included in the motor vehicle manufacturing industry.

Occupations in the Industry[To Top]

As the industry strives to improve the flexibility of its workforce, employees are being asked to perform a greater variety of jobs, particularly in the manufacturing plants. This is causing the number of occupational specialties in this industry to shrink in favor of more generic titles, such as team assembler and maintenance worker. The skill level of workers has also increased to match workers' growing responsibilities.

Professional and related occupations. Prior to assembling components in the manufacturing plant, extensive design, engineering, testing, and production planning go into the manufacture of motor vehicles. These tasks often require years to complete and cost millions or even billions of dollars. Professionals are the ones responsible for this aspect of the work. Using artistic talent, computers, and information on product use, marketing, materials, and production methods, commercial and industrial designers create designs they hope will make the vehicle competitive in the marketplace. Designers use sketches and computer-aided design techniques to create computer models of proposed vehicles. These computer models eliminate the need for physical body mockups in the design process because they give designers complete information on how each piece of the vehicle will work with others. Workers may repeatedly modify and redesign models until the models meet engineering, production, and marketing specifications. Designers working in parts production increasingly collaborate with manufacturers in the initial design stages to integrate motor vehicle parts into the design specifications for each vehicle.

Engineers—who form the largest professional contingent in the industry—play an integral role in all stages of motor vehicle manufacturing. They oversee the building and testing of the engine, transmission, brakes, suspension, and other mechanical and electrical components. Using computers and assorted models, instruments, and tools, engineers simulate various parts of the vehicle to determine whether each part meets cost, safety, performance, and quality specifications. Mechanical engineers design improvements for engines, transmissions, and other working parts. Electrical and electronics engineers design the vehicle's electrical and electronic systems, as well as industrial robot control systems used to assemble the vehicle. Industrial engineers concentrate on designing an efficient plant layout, including the arrangement of assembly line stations, material-moving equipment, work standards, quality control, and other production matters.

Under the direction of engineers, engineering technicians prepare specifications for materials, devise and run tests to ensure product quality, and study ways to improve manufacturing efficiency. For example, testing may reveal how metal parts perform under conditions of heat, cold, and stress, and whether emissions-control equipment meets environmental standards. Finally, prototype vehicles incorporating all the components are built and tested on test tracks, on road simulators, and in test chambers that can duplicate almost every driving condition, including crashes.

Management occupations. Management workers establish guidelines for the design of motor vehicles to provide direction for the teams of experts in engineering, design, marketing, sales, finance, and production. From the earliest stages of planning and design, these specialists help assess whether the vehicle will satisfy consumer demand, meet safety and environmental regulations, and prove economically practical to make. These executives also serve as public representatives for the company.

Industrial production managers oversee first-line supervisors and managers of production and operating workers. These supervisors oversee inspectors, precision workers, machine setters and operators, assemblers, fabricators, and plant and system operators. They coordinate a variety of manufacturing processes and production activities, including scheduling, staffing, equipment, quality control, and inventory control.

Production occupations. These occupations account for about 65 percent of motor vehicle and parts manufacturing jobs (table 2). Assemblers and fabricators and metal and plastic workers put together various parts to form subassemblies, and then put the subassemblies together to build a complete motor vehicle. Most assemblers in this industry are team assemblers, who work in teams and perform a variety of tasks. Some may perform other routine tasks such as mounting and inflating tires; adjusting brakes; and adding gas, oil, brake fluid, and coolant. Metal parts are molded or machined, plastic and glass parts are molded and cut, seat cushions are sewn, and many parts are painted. Many manufacturing processes are highly automated; robots, computers, and programmable devices are an integral part of motor vehicle manufacturing.

From initial planning and design to final assembly, numerous tests and inspections ensure that vehicles meet quality and safety standards. Modern manufacturing facilities also integrate interchangeable tools on the assembly line so that they can quickly be changed to meet the needs of various models and specifications.

Although robots perform most of the welding, welding, soldering, and brazing workers operate automated welding machines and also perform welds that are not easily automated. Machinists produce precision metal parts that are made in numbers too small to produce with automated machinery. Tool and die makers produce, maintain, and repair machine tools, dies, overhead conveyors, and special guiding and holding devices used in machines. Computer-controlled machine tool operators use computer-controlled machines or robots programmed to automatically machine and shape parts of different dimensions.

Workers in other production occupations run various machines that produce an array of motor vehicle bodies and parts. These workers set up and operate machines and make adjustments according to their instructions. In computer-controlled systems, they monitor computers regulating the machine processes and may have little interaction with the machinery or materials. Some workers specialize in one type of machine; others operate more than one type.

Grinding and polishing workers use handtools or hand-held power tools to sand and polish metal surfaces; painting workers paint surfaces of motor vehicles; and sewing machine operators sew together pieces of material to form seat covers and other parts.

Throughout the manufacturing process, inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers, and weighers and all assembly workers make checks to ensure that motor vehicles and parts meet quality standards. They inspect raw materials, check parts for defects, check the uniformity of subassemblies, and test-drive vehicles. Helpers supply or hold materials or tools, and clean work areas and equipment.

Installation, maintenance, repair, and construction occupations. Maintenance workers are some of the most important workers on the floor of the assembly plant. They make sure the assembly line remains in good working order, because any stoppages can greatly reduce the flow of work within the plant and reduce productivity. Workers in these occupations set up, maintain, and repair equipment. Historically, maintenance work has been broken down into a number of specialties. Electricians serviced complex electrical equipment. Machinists fabricated special parts. Plumbers and pipefitters dealt with the hydraulic systems. Millwrights installed and moved machinery and heavy equipment according to the factory's layout plans. Factories now are shifting to a different maintenance model. Instead of specializing in a single skill, factory maintenance personnel are skilled in a range of areas: electricity, fluid and hydraulic power, mechanical, welding, and fabrication. These industrial machinery mechanics and maintenance workers are expected to fix any equipment problem in their assigned section of the factory.

Table 2. Employment of wage and salary workers in motor vehicle and parts manufacturing, 2008 and projected change, 2008-2018. (Employment in thousands)
Occupation Employment, 2008 Percent Change,
Number Percent
All occupations 877.0 100.0 -16.3
Management, business, and financial occupations 51.1 5.8 -16.0
Professional and related occupations 66.9 7.6 -11.6
  Industrial engineers 17.5 2.0 -2.3
  Mechanical engineers 12.8 1.5 -10.6
  Engineering technicians, except drafters 11.3 1.3 -14.8
Office and administrative support occupations 47.9 5.5 -18.8
  Shipping, receiving, and traffic clerks 9.9 1.1 -25.0
Construction and extraction occupations 20.9 2.4 -19.0
  Electricians 11.2 1.3 -20.2
Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations 50.5 5.8 -11.9
  Industrial machinery mechanics 11.8 1.3 -2.3
  Maintenance and repair workers, general 15.4 1.8 -14.6
Production occupations 572.8 65.3 -16.6
  First-line supervisors/managers of production and operating workers 28.9 3.3 -16.5
  Team assemblers 158.2 18.0 -11.0
  All other assemblers and fabricators 80.3 9.2 -21.7
  Computer-controlled machine tool operators, metal and plastic 14.9 1.7 -4.4
  Machine tool cutting setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic 42.8 4.9 -27.7
  Machinists 28.3 3.2 -18.4
  Tool and die makers 16.5 1.9 -18.1
  Welding, soldering, and brazing workers 41.0 4.7 -13.4
  Inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers, and weighers 27.1 3.1 -17.9
  Painting workers 12.6 1.4 -17.2
  Helpers—Production workers 13.4 1.5 -16.8
Transportation and material moving occupations 53.4 6.1 -20.8
  Industrial truck and tractor operators 17.5 2.0 -14.9
NOTE: Columns may not add to total due to omission of occupations with small employment.

Training and Advancement[About this section] [To Top]

Many jobs in motor vehicle manufacturing have high earnings and good benefits, so they are some of the most highly sought after in the country. As a result, standards for entry are high, requiring a strong educational background and the successful completion of tests. Motor vehicle manufacturers provide formal training opportunities to all workers, regardless of educational background. Manufacturers offer some classes themselves and may pay tuition for workers who enroll in colleges, trade schools, or technical institutes. Workers sometimes receive college credit for training received on the job. Company training courses range in subject from communication skills to computer science. Formal educational opportunities at postsecondary institutions range from courses in English, basic mathematics, electronics, and computer programming languages to work-study programs leading to associate, bachelor's, and graduate degrees in engineering and technician specialties, management, and other fields.

Management and professional occupations. Management and professional occupations generally require workers who have a bachelor's degree in the particular field, although some management positions are filled by experienced production workers. Most engineering jobs in the industry require workers to have a degree in mechanical or electrical engineering or a specialty within these fields. Because engineers usually are familiar with both design and production issues within a company, they may be able to advance into the upper management positions.

Production and maintenance occupations. Faced with technological advances and the continuous need to cut costs, manufacturers increasingly emphasize continuing education and cross-train many workers in production and maintenance occupations to do more than one job. This has led to a change in the profile of the industry's workers. Standards for new hires are higher now than in the past. Employers increasingly require a strong educational background for assembly jobs, sometimes requiring a community college degree, and most motor vehicle manufacturers administer lengthy examinations to candidates for these jobs. Manual dexterity continues to be necessary for many production jobs, but employers also look for employees with good communication and math skills and aptitudes for computers, problem solving, and critical thinking. Many plants now emphasize the team approach, and employees interact more with coworkers and supervisors to determine the best way to get the job done. Employees are expected to work with much less supervision than in the past and take more responsibility for ensuring that their work conforms to guidelines.

Opportunities for training and advancement vary considerably by occupation, plant size, and sector. Training programs in larger auto and light truck assembly plants usually are more extensive than those in smaller parts, truck trailer, and motor home factories. Production workers receive most of their training on the job or through more formal apprenticeship programs. Training normally takes from a few days to several months and may combine classroom with on-the-job training under the guidance of more experienced workers. Attaining the highest level of skill in some production jobs requires several years, however. Training often includes courses in health and safety, teamwork, and quality control. With advanced training and experience, production workers can advance to inspector jobs or to more skilled production, craft, operator, or repair jobs.

Skilled production and maintenance workers—such as tool and die makers, industrial machinery mechanics, millwrights, machinists, pipefitters, and electricians—normally are hired on the basis of previous experience, education, and a good score on a competitive examination. Alternatively, the company may train inexperienced workers in apprenticeship programs that combine on-the-job training with classroom instruction. Typical courses include mechanical drawing, tool designing and programming, blueprint reading, shop mathematics, hydraulics, and electronics. Training also includes courses on health and safety, teamwork, quality control, computers, and diagnostic equipment. With training and experience, workers who excel can advance to become supervisors or managers.

Outlook[About this section] [To Top]

Continued productivity improvements and foreign outsourcing of parts production will cause employment to decline over the next decade.

Employment change. Overall wage and salary employment in the motor vehicle and parts manufacturing industry is expected to decline by 16 percent over the 2008-18 period, compared with 11 percent growth for all industries combined. Although more automobiles and light trucks will be manufactured in the U.S. over this period, productivity improvements will enable manufacturers to produce these vehicles and parts with fewer workers.

The growing intensity of international and domestic competition has increased cost pressures on manufacturers. In response, they have sought to improve productivity and quality with high-technology production techniques, including computer-assisted design, production, and testing. In addition to automation, both domestic and foreign-based manufacturers will reduce costs by shifting some parts and vehicle production to lower wage countries.

Expanding factory automation, robotics, efficiency gains, and the need to cut costs will cause nearly all production occupations to decline, but some occupations will decline more than others. Increasing automation will negatively affect employment of basic machine operator occupations more so than it will affect the skilled workers that operate and program robots. Assemblers who only perform one or two tasks will be replaced by team assemblers who are interchangeable on a team and can perform multiple functions. Greater automation will boost demand for maintenance workers who service and repair the robots and automated systems essential to a factory.

Employment of management, computer, office, and administrative support occupations will also decline as the number of production workers, whom these workers manage, supervise, and support, declines.

Job prospects. Due to the increasingly automated and sophisticated nature of motor vehicle manufacturing and assembly, employers are seeking a better educated workforce. Applicants for assembly jobs will likely face competition, but opportunities will be best for those with a 2-year degree in a technical area. Applicants for maintenance jobs should also face competition. As automakers shift to multi-skilled maintenance personnel, opportunities will be best for those with skills across a range of areas, such as hydraulics, electronics, and welding. Employers use screening tests for new applicants and state that both strong math and communication skills are necessary to pass these tests.

Employment in the automobile manufacturing industry follows economic cycles, therefore it can be volatile. It is common for workers to get laid off as production slows, then possibly rehired when production picks up again. Job openings are expected due to the large number of auto workers who will retire in the coming decade. Some of the foreign plants built in the 1980s will see high turnover as a large proportion of their workers retire. Overall, job applicants will face keen competition, but highly skilled workers will have the best employment prospects.

Earnings [About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

Industry earnings. Average weekly earnings of production or nonsupervisory workers in the motor vehicle and parts manufacturing industry are relatively high. At $1,251 per week, earnings of production workers in establishments that manufacture complete motor vehicles were among the highest in the Nation in 2008. Workers in establishments that make motor vehicle parts averaged $871 weekly and those in motor vehicle body and trailer manufacturing averaged $667 per week, compared with $724 for workers in all manufacturing industries, and $608 for those in the entire private sector. Wages in selected occupations in transportation equipment manufacturing, which comprises motor vehicle and parts manufacturing and aerospace product and parts manufacturing, appear in table 3.

Table 3. Median hourly wages of the largest occupations in motor vehicle and parts manufacturing, May 2008
Occupation Motor vehicle manufacturing Motor vehicle body and trailer manufacturing Motor vehicle parts manufacturing All industries
Industrial engineers $39.15 $29.55 $34.73 $35.49
Tool and die makers 35.10 21.39 27.99 22.32
First-line supervisors/managers of production and operating workers 34.00 22.37 24.72 24.25
Assemblers and fabricators, all other 27.84 13.04 17.48 13.37
Inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers, and weighers 27.11 15.95 16.39 15.02
Machinists 26.87 16.34 17.06 17.41
Industrial truck and tractor operators 26.58 14.43 15.45 13.98
Team assemblers 24.91 14.13 13.76 12.32
Welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers 21.09 14.73 15.78 16.13
Cutting, punching, and press machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic - 14.26 14.52 13.54

These hourly earnings may increase when overtime or special shifts are required. Workers generally are paid 1.5 times their normal wage rate for working more than 8 hours a day or more than 40 hours a week, or for working on Saturdays. They may receive double their normal wage rate for working on Sundays and holidays.

Benefits and union membership. The largest manufacturers and suppliers often offer benefits that include paid vacations and holidays; life, accident, and health insurance; education allowances; nonwage cash payment plans, such as performance and profit-sharing bonuses; and pension plans.

In 2008, about 1 out of 4 workers in motor vehicle and parts production were union members or were covered by union contracts, almost double the proportion of workers in all manufacturing industries and all workers in the private sector. Workers in motor vehicle production were more likely to be members of unions than were workers in parts production. The primary union in the industry is the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, also known as the United Auto Workers (UAW). Unionized production workers in motor vehicle assembly plants, and most of those in motor vehicle parts plants, are covered by collective bargaining agreements negotiated by the UAW. Other unions—including the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers of America, the United Steelworkers of America, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers—cover certain plant locations or specified trades in the industry.

*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

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