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Editorial: It’s nothing to sneeze at

When Freightliner sneezes, to paraphrase a saying once applied to General Motors and its role in the U.S. economy, Rowan County catches a cold. And the reverse is equally true. When Freightliner shows signs of recuperation, the whole county enjoys a tingle of relief.
It would be premature to view Freightliner’s current rehiring plans as a sign the Cleveland plant may soon return to its full-throttle days of round-the-clock production, when it was the county’s largest employer. You can’t bring back yesterday ó or production shifted to Mexican truck plants. But it’s certainly nothing to sneeze at that the company is cranking up its second shift again and recalling about 650 workers who were laid off in June. Each of those recall notices represents a family or individual who can stop fretting about how to buy groceries or medicine, make a house or a car payment, outfit kids going back to school and provide a living for themselves and their families.
At least they can stop fretting for a while. As those workers well know, there are no guarantees ó and little predictability ó in this sector of the transportation industry. Demand for big trucks rides on the fortunes of the overall economy and how things are going for carriers like UPS and merchandisers like Wal-Mart ó both of which have put in major orders with Freightliner in recent months. Truck orders are also affected by other factors, including changing environmental standards which can influence purchases as buyers rush to beat the deadline for tightened pollution requirements ó or delay purchases to take advantage of newer, more fuel-efficient engines coming on line.
Since Freightliner opened the Cleveland plant in 1989, its production has gone through numerous cycles, with employment ranging from a high of about 4,500 in 2006, when it was the county’s largest employer, to the 1,985 employees who will be on the job once this latest recall is complete. Scan the headlines over the years, and Freightliner always seems to be either gearing up or gearing down; long, smooth hauls are the exception.
It can be nervewracking to live with that kind of uncertainty. But at least Freightliner’s idled employees know there’s hope of a recall. That’s not the case for thousands of laid-off workers at shuttered textile or furniture plants, or at GM, Ford and Chrysler. The Big (but shrinking) Three aren’t just sneezing; they’ve got hacking coughs and high fevers. Ditto for the banking and financial services industries. In the wake of turmoil in the credit markets, some analysts expect the U.S. commercial banking industry to shed 200,000 jobs (from about 2 million) before some semblance of stability returns.
In fact, even though Freightliner has experienced more than its share of flu-like symptoms, it has shown a remarkable resiliency to bounce back, especially compared to other industries. That’s because big trucks remain a critical part of our freight delivery system ó and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Rowan should be thankful for this trucking reality: Families can downsize from an SUV to a fuel-sipping hybrid, but you can’t haul much freight in a Prius.

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