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Automotive Industry Workers


In our mobile society, it is difficult to imagine a time without automobiles. Yet just over 125 years ago, there were none. In the late 1800s, inventors were just beginning to tinker with the idea of a self-propelled vehicle. Early experiments used steam to power a vehicle's engine. Two German engineers developed the first internal combustion engine fueled by gasoline. Karl Benz finished the first model in 1885, and Gottlieb Daimler finished building a similar model in 1886. Others around the world had similar successes in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In these early days, no one imagined people would become so reliant on the automobile as a way of life. In 1898, there were 50 automobile manufacturing companies in the United States, a number that rose to 241 by 1908.

Early automobiles were expensive to make and keep in working order and could be used to travel only short distances; they were "toys" for those who had the time and money to tinker with them. One such person was Henry Ford. He differed from others who had succeeded in building automobiles in that he believed the automobile could appeal to the general public if the cost of producing them were reduced. The Model A was first produced by the Ford Motor Company in small quantities in 1903. Ford made improvements to the Model A, and in October 1908, he found success with the more practical Model T. The Model T was the vehicle that changed Ford's fortune and would eventually change the world. It was a powerful car with a possible speed of 45 miles per hour that could run 13 to 21 miles on a gallon of gasoline. Such improvements were made possible by the use of vanadium steel, a lighter and more durable steel than that previously used. Automobiles were beginning to draw interest from the general public as newspapers reported early successes, but they were still out of reach for most Americans. The automobile remained a curiosity to be read about in the newspapers until 1913. That's when Ford changed the way his workers produced automobiles in the factory. Before 1913, skilled craftsmen made automobiles in Ford's factory, but Ford's moving assembly line reduced the skill level needed and sped up production. The moving assembly line improved the speed of chassis assembly from 12 hours and 8 minutes to 1 hour and 33 minutes. Craftsmen were no longer needed to make the parts and assemble the automobiles. Anyone could be trained for most of the jobs required to build an automobile in one of Ford's factories, making it possible to hire unskilled workers at lower wages.

For many early automotive workers, Ford's mass production concept proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Demand was growing for the affordable automobile, even during the Depression years, bringing new jobs for people who desperately needed them. However, working on an assembly line could be tedious and stressful at the same time. Ford paid his workers well (he introduced the $5 day in 1914, a high wage for the time), but he demanded a lot of them. He sped up the assembly line on several occasions, and many workers performed the same task for hours at a frenzied pace, often without a break.

Such conditions led workers to organize unions and, through the years, workers have gained more control over the speed at which they work and pay rates. Many of today's automotive industry workers belong to unions such as the United Auto Workers (founded in 1935). The industry continued to evolve with automotive technology in the 1940s and 1950s. American automobiles were generally large and consumed a lot of gasoline, but a strong U.S. economy afforded many Americans the ability to buy and maintain such vehicles. In Europe and Japan, smaller, fuel-efficient cars were more popular. This allowed foreign automakers to cut deeply into the American automobile market during fuel shortages in the 1970s. Automotive workers suffered job cuts in the 1980s because of declining exports and domestic sales. After rebounding in the early 2000s, the automotive industry again faced challenging times in the mid-2000s as a result of strong competition from foreign automotive manufacturers, the outsourcing of vehicle and parts manufacturing to foreign countries where labor is less expensive and unions do not have as much strength, and the economic recession (which began in December 2007). Two (General Motors and Chrysler) of the Big Three U.S. automakers were forced to file for bankruptcy in 2009 (although they have since emerged from bankruptcy) and received a massive financial bailout from the federal government.

Following the difficult years of the Great Recession, industry sales enjoyed seven years of unprecedented growth through 2016, according to the Auto Alliance. Following a slight decline in 2017, the industry sold 17.2 million vehicles in 2018. From a sales standpoint, this marked the fourth-best year in the automotive industry's history. Although sales of cars declined 12.8 percent in 2018, to 5.3 million units, truck sales increased 7.7 percent, reaching 11.9 million units. Light truck sales accounted for a record-setting 69.2 percent of the market in 2018.

Several major developments were unfolding as the industry approached the end of the decade. As SUVs and trucks exploded in popularity, Ford revealed plans to stop producing sedans such as the Fusion and Focus. One exception was the company's Ford Mustang muscle car. In 2018, Ford acquired Michigan Central Station, an 18-story office tower and train station in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood that would become a campus for developing and proving autonomous vehicles. In 2019, Ford and Volkswagen AG agreed to jointly develop medium-sized pickup trucks and commercial vans starting in 2022, and were exploring other potential partnerships focused on electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, and mobility services. In 2019, General Motors was planning to introduce a ridesharing service powered by autonomous vehicles.

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