Plenty of work, but finding enough people to do it is tough job

Editor’s note: This story is part of a special “Help Wanted” section running in the Oct. 4 edition that details the lengths auto companies are going to find new workers.

The auto industry has been talking about “reshoring” in recent years as if it were a kind of patriotic movement — pulling manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. from China, Indonesia and Mexico as way to bolster the American economy.

Garry Craft wishes it were that simple.

“We just transferred a lot of business from Mexico to our plant in Gadsden, Ala., because the company there couldn’t get enough people to do the work,” said Craft, director of sales at Koller-Craft South. “They were having problems getting employees. And once their product got to the border, the trucks were sitting there for five to seven days because of staffing issues at the border.”

Koller-Craft, a Tier 2 molder and assembler of components that include interior trim pieces, decorative parts, cupholder assemblies and door handle assemblies, is adding 15 to 20 people to its 170-employee Gadsden plant to absorb the extra work.

Cross-border shipments have been a vexing issue for suppliers such as Koller-Craft since long before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in early 2020. The Trump administration’s U.S.-China trade war introduced new unknowns into global supply chains in 2018. Tariffs on steel imports additionally changed some supply chain equations. And border shutdowns and congestion from the pandemic further complicated logistics.

But suppliers in many areas say this year’s main issue has been simply having enough workers to make parts and move them to their customers.

“It’s just being able to get truck drivers,” said Craft, whose name is coincidental to his employer’s. “There are times when we’ve had to call our customer and say, ‘We will not be able to get a truck out today because we can’t get a truck driver. We will get a truck tomorrow.’ ”

The industry already was fretting over a truck driver shortage before the pandemic came along. But then it worsened. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last month that U.S. trucking employment has not come back from its pandemic dip and remains more than 30,000 people below its February 2020 headcount.

Staffing and logistics challenges also raise quality flags in a supply chain, Craft added.

“We’ve had some quality problems with companies that never had them before,” he said. “And it’s because they’ve lost some of their experienced talent. New employees come in who have to learn the product from the ground up.”

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