‘These people want to work.’ When GM posts Flint jobs, people line up.
FLINT—They arrived wearing everything from blue jeans to button-up shirts to dress suits, none of which was particularly comfortable as the noon sun beat down on an unshaded parking lot across the street from Factory One, the birthplace of what’s now General Motors.
No one complained. They were there by 11 a.m., two hours early, taking their place near the front of the line to apply for one of 400 temporary jobs paying $16.67-an-hour at the automaker’s only remaining local assembly plant.
The few dozen people gathered outside of the historic former factory on the edge of downtown in the late morning grew into hundreds of job-seekers Thursday of last week on what was the second day of GM’s in-person hiring blitz. In those two days, more than 800 people applied for factory jobs.
“This might be a life-changing experience for somebody,” said Kentay Coles, 41, of Flint as he sat on a small camp chair to be called from the parking lot to cross the street and enter the makeshift hiring center.
Many in the crowd shared Coles’ optimism about the jobs and their chances of landing one, with the line of applicants offering an implicit rebuke to the narrative that people aren’t motivated to find work so long as steady COVID funding arrives from Washington.
- Michigan changed unemployment rules. Now 648,000 may have to repay benefits
- Michigan unemployment agency resumes in-person office visits
- Michigan drops COVID-19 safety restrictions in most workplaces
- A Michigan mall’s transformation: From Macy’s to self-storage
- Lack of child care now a ‘crisis’ facing Michigan’s workforce
- Michigan restaurants ask: How can we find enough workers?
The response also appears to speak to the hold GM continues to have over this once powerful automotive city.
Some in the crowd remembered grandparents retiring from places like Buick City, “Chevy in the Hole” and other closed GM factories that once employed 80,000 people in the city and paid them middle-class wages before U.S. auto manufacturing shed jobs and Michigan reeled from the loss.
Some standing in that hot parking lot had tried for years to “get in” to the automaker. Others, and not just the college-aged, were applying for the first time. Many were in their 50s or beyond.
Some parents dropped off their adult children, one yelling across a few cars to his daughter, “You do not miss an opportunity to work at GM.”
The opportunity to work at General Motors’ Flint Assembly as truck sales surge comes with some significant strings attached: Hours could be any day, including weekends, any number of days and any shift. And the factory positions are temporary.
The jobs promise $16.67 an hour — with the possibility of a permanent hire after 90 days — and that combination made them stand in line for hours, many applicants told Bridge Michigan.
Stability. Benefits. Longevity. Better pay. These openings, they said, represented an opportunity for them to achieve all of that.
“I’ve been looking all the way around, and this is the best that I’ve seen,” said Paul Richardson of Flint.
That is not necessarily the case with job postings around much of Michigan, where a northern Michigan fast food restaurant is advertising $18 per hour wages, hiring bonuses are touted from banners in front of small factories and employers in lower-skilled industries like hospitality complain that they can’t find enough workers.
But in Flint, when GM says it’s hiring, people listen.
“GM has been the bread and butter of Flint forever,” said Scott Figgins of Davison.
Figgins’ grandfather worked for GM. So did aunts and uncles. His father tried it, but didn’t like it, so he became a locomotive engineer, working for the railroad that serviced the plants. Figgins followed his father to the railroad.
His children, Sean and Asia, are students at Mott Community College, and need jobs. So Figgins brought them to the hiring site. He told Sean, who is studying heating and cooling systems, that finding work at GM could lead to a long-term job in the trade.
“I said to them, ‘GM is a great place to work. Great place,’” the dad said. “‘Get your foot in the door there!’”
Figgins said he knew hundreds of people had shown up on the first day, so he brought his kids there early on the second. He found a place to park and waited in his van, vowing to stay as long as he needed for his children to complete the day’s application process.
“There’s a hunger in this community,” he said, looking at the steady stream of people joining the line. “These people want to work.”
Michigan’s overall unemployment rate fell to 4.9 percent this spring, but it stood at 6.8 percent in Genesee County, which includes Flint. The county number represents a labor force of 174,885 with about 12,000 people actively looking for jobs.
Yet at the same time, as in other areas of Michigan, the labor force shrunk during the pandemic. In Genesee, that means another 7,415 people dropped out of the workforce, likely for all of the reasons experts are seeing elsewhere, including a lack of child care, fear of COVID-19 or the lure of retirement. And then there’s the argument that invoked by many business leaders and lawmakers: the federal unemployment bonus payment of $300 per week that lasts through Labor Day.
While unemployment is higher in Genesee than the state average, many employers in Genesee County say they still feel hiring pressures.
Still, others in the business community said they are not surprised that a job fair put on by GM attracted hundreds of prospective employees.
“GM is an iconic, Michigan-based company,” said Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. “Leading national and international companies have an advantage.”
That’s not always true for GM, said Jack Crawley, plant communications manager, who said the company also has experienced the difficulties of the job market as it went to social media and other outlets to fill the jobs. But without enough applicants and an urgency to get temporary hires on the job, the company decided to try the two-day in-person event to stir up interest and make the process more personal.
Flint Assembly employs about 5,200 hourly workers who build heavy duty trucks, including the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra.
“Demand for trucks is incredibly high right now,” Crawley said. He noted the plant’s round-the-clock production six days a week with a couple of Sundays added every month and the cancellation of the annual summer shutdown. “We’re building as many trucks as we can.”
To do that, the automaker needs 400 temporary part-timers to train for assembly jobs to “let our employees get some time off,” Crawley said.
Another 50 workers are sought for full-time positions paying $15 per hour at General Motors Subsystems, the subsidiary that operates in company factories with lower pay tiers and without GM benefits.
The company’s hiring — even for temporary workers — may signal more jobs will be coming to the region since its manufacturing uses parts made by suppliers, said Tyler Rossmaessler, executive director of the Flint & Genesee Economic Alliance. That’s a hopeful sign in the community, he said.
Yet while manufacturing is the biggest contributor to the Genesee County economy, it’s only the fourth-largest job sector, behind health care, government & education, and retail.
“Genesee County has a rich history with GM, but we are not the manufacturing town of the 1970s,” Rossmaessler said.
But last week’s job seekers are hoping they’ll be hired to the positions they say have the same allure to them today due to the financial benefits experienced by generations of factory workers before them. However, the pay has changed: Today, the average GM factory worker earns $27.89 per hour, compared to $35.94 in 2008, when adjusted for inflation.
Rachel Temrowski of Rochester was among the crowd that tried to apply on June 16, but was still in line when the job fair closed about 6 p.m., four hours after it was supposed to end. She returned at 7 a.m. the next day after earning the chance to be admitted hours early. Temrowski works at an urgent care, but that was exhausting during the pandemic. Her father spent 42 years at Chrysler, and the Detroit Three represents the pinnacle of manufacturing opportunity, he told her.
She’s looking for “something solid,” she said, and hopes to move into skilled trades.
Natasha Johnson of Flint said she applied for the pay. She stood in line next to Gina Weatherbee, also of Flint, who saw a report on TV news about the wave of applicants the day before.
“I said, today I’ll go,” Weatherbee said. “I might be one of those people who gets the job.”
Gary Shelton, 54, hasn’t worked for the past few years and just went through hip replacement surgery. He, too, wants to work full-time, but for a wage that lets him “get back on my feet.”
“There’s a high demand for higher paying jobs,” Shelton said. “That’s desperately needed.”
Crawley, the GM spokesperson, spent a few hours working with the second-day applicants, handing out codes to start the process on cell phones, and promising access to laptops to people without internet connections.
Once they got inside, job-seekers didn’t have to worry about an interview: They were there to complete an application, sign a waiver for a background check and submit to a drug test using a hair sample.
Most people left with a contingent offer, Crawley said, promising an email with a start date.
“I don’t want to say all you have to do is show up,” he told Bridge. “We’re making this as quick as possible, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of thought and effort on our part.”
He continued: “We want diligent, hard workers who want to be part of building our world-class, heavy duty trucks.”
By the end of the fair, GM said it had gained 700 new prospective workers for the 450 positions. Some will start work in June, while others will be hired later. All face the mandatory scheduling flexibility. Applications will be kept on file if there are still more openings, or if some workers don’t make it through training.
Unclear is how many people can use the jobs as stepping stones to permanent positions at Flint Assembly.
“This gives people in the community something to hope for,” said Figgins, who’s optimistic for his two kids. “It would be great if they could hire all of them.”
Covering the intersection of business and policy, and informing Michigan employers and workers on the long road back from coronavirus.
Thanks to Business Watch sponsors:
Support Bridge's nonprofit civic journalism. Donate today.
We’ve been there for you with daily Michigan COVID-19 news; reporting on the emergence of the virus, daily numbers with our tracker and dashboard, exploding unemployment, and we finally were able to report on mass vaccine distribution. We report because the news impacts all of us. Will you please donate and help us reach our goal of 15,000 members in 2021?