The American automobile industry occupies a near-mythic status in the nation’s cultural and economic imagination. President-elect Barack Obama echoes the sentiments of many when he says that Detroit is “the backbone of American manufacturing.” If it is—Detroit’s economic importance is great but now occupies a lesser role than it did before it entered a slow-but-steady decline in the 1970s—then it suffers from acute and advanced damage that will require major surgery. And like any major surgery, treating Detroit’s malaise will be a complicated affair with no assurance of success. However, doing nothing may be worse, especially for the state of Michigan.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics’ figures for September 2008, Michigan’s labor force was about 4.9 million, with about 4.5 million holding jobs. That’s a significant decline from September 2007, when the labor force numbered just over 5 million, with 4.6 million employed. The state lost roughly 149,000 jobs in the period and saw unemployment rise from 7.3 percent to 8.7 percent, which is 2.2 points higher than the national average. The rate would have been even higher if people hadn’t dropped out of the labor force altogether.
The Big Three trimmed thousands of jobs in the state during that period, which no doubt triggered additional job cuts among automotive subcontractors and suppliers, various retailers, and even homebuilders and home improvement firms. These job losses keep politicians, business leaders and citizens up late at night. As Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm recently quipped: “Forget ‘Drill, baby, drill.’ Here it’s ‘Jobs, baby, jobs.’ ”
All told, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler employ somewhere around 500,000 people, many of them outside Michigan. However, these figures underestimate the total employment impact, since at least 3 million Americans rely on the U.S. auto industry for their jobs, with the highest concentration in and around Michigan. The Center for Automotive Research...