Manufacturing is all Steve McQueen

Statistics Canada’s surprising job numbers, and the swagger coming from Detroit, are good harbingers for the economy

By Todd Humber (todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com)

Manufacturing has got its shades on again.

For years, the critical sector has been an economic nerd. Taking punch after punch, it was unable to stand up for itself — it was the 98-pound weakling getting sand kicked in its face as thousands of jobs were shed across Canada and plant after plant shut down.

Ralph Gilles, Chrysler's senior vice president of design, speaks in front of a Chrysler 300 during the press day for the North American International Auto show in Detroit on Jan. 10. (Photo: Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

But suddenly, and surprisingly, manufacturing is cool again. Or make that red hot — as Statistics Canada’s surprising job numbers from December showed. A total of 66,000 jobs were created in the manufacturing sector last month — which means there were more people working in manufacturing at the end of 2010 than there was at the start.

“Really, the mysterious man of the hour is manufacturing,” Eric Lascelles, chief macro strategist at TD Securities, told Reuters. “In fact, it’s such a big monthly gain that you end up closing out 2010 with more manufacturing jobs than the start of the year which is not something I think anyone really seriously predicted over the last year.”

And the headlines continue to get better. The Detroit automakers are bullish as the curtains are raised on the 2011 edition of the North American International Auto Show — which by all accounts is more glitzy this year, reflecting the sector’s optimism following some toned down shows in recent years.

Ford announced plans to add 7,000 new hourly and salaried jobs in the United States by the end of 2012. GM also said it plans to bring back workers. And Chrysler unveiled its sleek new 300 sedan, built in Brampton, Ont., and reaffirmed its commitment to its Windsor, Ont.-built minivan.

Nobody is confident enough to say that we’re out of the woods yet — and it looks like painful cuts and austerity measures are coming to the public sector. California’s new governor, for example, unveiled a budget plan this week that called for non-unionized state employees to take a 10 per cent pay cut. Governments in Canada, having racked up billions in stimulus debt, will be reigning in spending as well.

But the surprising job news coming from the manufacturing sector in Canada, and the optimism from the automakers at the Detroit auto show, is welcome news following years of plant closings, job cuts and concessions from workers.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resources management. For more information, visit www.hrreporter.com.

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