Manufacturing — once the backbone of Jackson County’s economy — has been making a recovery this year after shedding almost 3,000 jobs locally from 2005 to 2010.
While the automotive sector is a major factor in the rebound, firms like Midbrook, RTD Manufacturing and American Tooling Center are expanding to making products for the medical, military and alternative energy fields.
That means more manufacturers are hiring, said Annette Norris, director of the Jackson Area Manufacturers Association’s Academy for Manufacturing Careers. She said that was rare a year ago.
“There’s such a demand for skilled workers,” Norris said. “I do think things are turning around for manufacturing.”
During the past year, the number of manufacturing jobs in Jackson County rose by 200, the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget reported. The 7,800 manufacturing jobs in September represented 14 percent of the county’s 54,100 non-farm payroll jobs.
“Jackson has a good work force and a work force that knows manufacturing,” said Cheryl Norey, spokeswoman for Michigan Automotive Compressor inc., 2400 N. Dearing Road.
MACI is investing $75 million to retool virtually all of its production lines during the next two years. The company announced this year it will add 79 full-time jobs.
The company, which produces automotive air-conditioning compressors primarily for Chrysler and General Motors, has hired about 20 people and plans to hire 30 more by the end of the year.
MACI has 613 employees and more than 100 temporary workers.
Company officials pointed to new product lines and higher demand for some of MACI’s compressors as reasons for the hiring, as sales have increased in the North American auto market.
“For most manufacturers, the auto industry is changing quickly,” Norey said. “We’ve seen the auto industry turn around. We think it’s going to be fairly steady at the level that it is now.”
The return to stability is a major change for local manufacturers, who suffered during the recent recession. In 2005, there was a monthly average of 10,300 manufacturing jobs in Jackson County.
The trend was much the same statewide, as Michigan’s manufacturers cut their work force by 200,000 employees from 2005 to 2010.
MACI and others are not adding enough jobs to reverse local job losses, but they are putting more people to work:
• Great Lakes Industry inc., 1927 Wildwood Ave., announced in April that it expects to hire 40 people in the next five years. It is adding machinery to expand its manufacturing capability and increase the size and precision of the gears it makes. The company employs 70.
• In April 2010, Tenneco announced an expansion plan that includes an increase in jobs at its Grass Lake engineering facility, which employed 350 at the time.
• In September 2010, TAC Manufacturing, 4111 County Farm Road, announced plans to add at least 20 jobs. The company employs about 600, including about 100 temporary workers.
Phil Sponsler, president of Orbitform Group at 1600 Executive Drive, said his company is growing and adding jobs as well.
Since March 2010, the manufacturer has added 17 jobs and plans to add several more toward the end of the year, going into next year.
The company employs 60.
“We do remain cautious, but we are optimistic about 2012,” Sponsler said.
“even in the hard times, we were taking chances and risks to try new things.”
One new thing is expanding into the retail market. In may, the company bought Interlochen-based Pit Products and its sister company, Garage Pals.
Both companies are now making aluminum cabinets, garage doors and cabinets under Orbitform’s roof.
Orbitform is updating its product line and also has done more marketing through its website and through its applications lab, where companies can test out Orbitform machinery with their products and building processes.
In the past six years, Orbitform has invested $2 million in tooling, software, equipment and education for staff to be more competitive in the marketplace.
“We just have a great team and we can take risks,” Sponsler said. “We are a heavily engineering and skilled work force.”