This was originally going to be a comment on Jill’s blog entry, but it ended up being massive — more commentary than comment, and really a post of its own. In a departure of my usual exploration of topics I am clueless about, today I’ll discuss — rant about, even — something I actually understand.
The original post on Jill’s blog crossposts from an all-too-typical story of a middle-aged ex-employee of the auto industry.
In a way, I share this story as well. I lost my job with Visteon in Bedford Indiana on June 30. (The automotive industry employs hundreds of thousands of workers across the country — although Detroit certainly bears the brunt of it.) I’m young, and expect to have another job soon. My friends in Bedford aren’t all so lucky, particularly the ones with twenty of more years of experience.
It’s not just the fact that I was fired that makes me angry, though. I’m reasonable enough to accept that if I — or, in this case, an entire factory — am not not doing an adequate job, I can face termination. This is a sampling of what makes me angry:
- The closure of a plant that has always turned a profit. A plant with one of the best quality records.
- The excuse given for closure is that Visteon wanted to concentrate on its core businesses. (The ones which lose millions of dollars every year.) In order to devote resources to those, they needed to get rid of Bedford.
- Other factories within the Ford supplier chain, ones which lose up to a million dollars a day and create impressively frequent quality problems, are kept open.
- Ford demanding “cost saving” measures to reduce the cost of parts, which has ultimately resulted in a 200% increase in those parts now that they have to buy from somebody other than Visteon.
- The extreme waste involved in the plant closure — hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment, spare parts, even office supplies just thrown or given away. Even the building was sold for a fraction of what it is worth — a fraction of what the land underneath it is worth.
Every aspect was of this closure told us this was happening not because we were bad at our jobs, but because Visteon had some other mysterious reason that made no logical sense. When somebody hits you over the head with a large stick and has no reason for it, it’s no surprise you’d be a little bit angry.
I was a manufacturing engineer. Not only was I responsible for working with the factory workers to keep us building good quality parts, I also worked with Ford on design changes — the ones they wanted to improve their vehicles, the ones we wanted to improve our production processes (or quality). The part which involved Bedford’s workers was great… we brainstormed, worked together, certainly argued a bit, but came up with solutions. And then was the hard part: getting Ford to agree to what we wanted to change.
Let’s imagine that you run a factory. A large corporation, even. I would hope that you would want small changes (oh, let’s say, the color of a hose elbow, which simplifies manufacturability) to go through quickly, with very little fuss, so everybody could concentrate on bigger problems which really mattered. I learned one thing in the three years as a Visteon engineer: Ford didn’t want to make changes, and Visteon wasn’t much better. Half a year was a speedy change. This isn’t something that can be blamed on politicians or corporate executives, it is due to middle management and their staff being unwilling to commit themselves to changes. Endless meetings seeking somebody else to take the blame are not a productive use of time and money.
Don’t even get me started on the financial waste and quality problems. Bad quality is a financial waste on its own, of course — if you make a bad part, you’ve wasted money and time (which is also money). Did you know Ford assembly plants aren’t required — or capable — of meeting the quality standards to which their suppliers are required to adhere? And as the automaker pressures its suppliers to cut costs, the suppliers’ quality decreases, leading to endemic car problems, expensive recalls… The system is broken.
The executive staff is far from blameless, of course. Somebody needs to take the quarterly loss of $100 million and spin it as a success. (HA HA HA. Those press releases are always a good read. “The loss is $10 million less than expected and is therefore an excellent contribution to our three-year plan…”) They also are the ones to wibble about with idiot excuses for closing a plant that always made a profit and always made good-quality parts. (Insider hint: if you think your Ford will need a fuel pump or washer reservoir replaced anytime soon, BUY IT NOW before the Bedford parts are out of the supply chain.)
I fervently believe in American manufacturing — selfishly because it provides me with employment, and idealistically because it is good for the American economy (which, I guess, is also selfish since I live here). But should I “buy American”? The “American” car nowadays is only assembled in the US. Many, if not most, of its components are not American in origin; the percentage of international parts is increasing as time passes. So while I pay a part of the salary of some American workers if I buy a Ford, I’m also paying a tiny part of the much smaller salaries of people around the world. (As a side note: if I buy a Honda, for example, I am also paying both American and international workers, in about the same proportion. Lots of “foreign” cars are assembled in our country now, it’s just the ownership that’s international.) By buying “American” cars, I’m saying, “Hey, American automaker, what you’re doing is totally OK!”
I don’t have an answer. Letting the auto industry collapse under the weight of idiocy and incompetence — hell, even just one of the Big Three — would crush the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of American employees: unthinkable. Bailing them out to support a system crippled by its own incompetence: unthinkable. So they continue to create their own big messes, hoping that some miracle will occur and fix everything for them. I hate that.