September was supposed to be the month when an absent North American workforce suddenly reemerged and reported for factory duty.
After a year and a half of pandemic infections, home confinement, interrupted auto production, idled factories and furloughed workers, Sept. 6 marked the end of federal unemployment assistance that was enacted to ease the impact of smaller paychecks, failing businesses and people's reluctance to go to work during the pandemic. The assumption was that the program's end would send workers back to the job.
But many in the industry remain skeptical.
"I don't see it happening," said Charlotte Hoffer Canning, chief culture officer for Hoffer Plastics Corp., a family-owned injection molder in suburban Chicago.
"As much as I would hope and wish that the expiration of the unemployment benefits is going to solve this, I don't think it's going to," she said.
Economic data reported over the past month indicates that job openings are rising significantly. Hirings also are up, but they are not coming close to filling the number of vacant positions around the industry — especially at a time when the market is red-hot and consumers are clamoring for new cars and trucks.
Canning is trying to recruit more than three dozen people to work at Hoffer, which normally has a workforce of about 350. She admits that it's tough.
The auto industry had a hiring challenge before the pandemic arrived, she points out, and it will still have one when the pandemic is over.
This is the buried crisis of the auto business: Companies have a dire need for more workers and a stubborn problem hiring them. The pandemic has masked and complicated that.