LOUISVILLE — Ford is the latest U.S. automaker to hire hundreds of workers as the economy picks up and auto sales improve, announcing plans Thursday to hire 1,800 more employees at its Louisville Assembly Plant.
At an announcement in front of workers there, Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas, said the new hires — which will be nearly 5 percent of Ford's current U.S. work force — will build a new version of the Ford Escape small SUV.
The Escape is the second best-selling small SUV in the United States behind the Honda CR-V.
Ford will invest $600 million in a year-long renovation of the plant, which will close during the time to install the new equipment, and Fields said the upgrades will help Ford shift to smaller cars and boost its competitiveness. The new Escape will be built on the Ford Focus car platform instead of a truck one to boost fuel economy.
When the Louisville plant reopens in late 2011, it will be one of the most advanced in the company, able to switch quickly between car models in response to consumer demand.
Fields said such flexibility is necessary as the market grows more competitive. Other car makers such as Toyota and Hyundai have newer, more nimble U.S. plants.
The Louisville plant will be running on two shifts with 2,900 workers when it reopens. Some of the 1,800 added workers will be new hires, but many will come from Ford plants where they have been laid off, the company said. Under a 2007 contract, new hires will make around $14, or half the wages of veteran workers at the plant, which will mean significant savings for the company.
Ford plans to keep making the current version of the Escape at a plant outside Kansas City, Mo., until production moves to Louisville. The company hasn't announced a future product for the Missouri plant.
The Louisville plant currently builds the Ford Explorer and employs 1,100 people on one shift. Production of that mid-size SUV has already moved to a Chicago plant.
Ford will get $240 million in tax incentives for the Louisville project from Kentucky and local governments over the next decade. Fields said the jobs may not have been created without the tax incentives.
Ralph Hearn, a plant production standards representative from Louisville, said the news was a long time coming for factory employees struggling with Ford's woes over the last few years. Ford cut thousands of workers and closed plants in a major restructuring that began five years ago.
"I think what it has done is lifted the morale of the plant," Hearn said.
Ford has around 40,000 U.S. hourly production workers.
General Motors and Chrysler have also announced more hiring as automakers predict gradual improvement in U.S. car sales following the recession.