Nissan to trim jobs in South http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070221/AUTO01/702210346 The 1st major Japanese automaker to offer buyouts in U.S. seeks cuts only at 2 plants as demand for trucks declines. Christine Tierney / The Detroit News Like Detroit's automakers, Nissan Motor Co. is shifting its output to build more cars and fewer light trucks. Now, like the domestics, the Japanese automaker is extending buyouts to workers at two of its U.S. factories. Nissan said it was offering packages comprising a $45,000 lump sum and $500 for each year of employment to hourly production and maintenance technicians in Tennessee to cut its U.S. manufacturing work force by 300 jobs, or 3 percent. The automaker's move dispels the myth that the Japanese transplants with their ultra-flexible factories are immune to the volatile U.S. market trends that have tripped up the domestic automakers. In general, however, the leading Asian automakers are increasing their share of the U.S. market. Nissan's actions mark the first U.S. job reductions by a major Japanese automaker in the United States, although smaller players such as Mitsubishi Motors Corp. have cut their staffs in North America when they ran into difficulties. "The other Japanese franchises are increasing, but Nissan hasn't done as well," said auto analyst Alex Rosten at auto research site Edmunds.com. Like its U.S. rivals, Nissan was hurt by the spike in gas prices last year because it had few new cars in its lineup. "The new product that was in their showrooms was all trucks and SUVs," Rosten said. Nissan's U.S. sales fell 7 percent last year, with the Titan full-size pickup and Armada and Xterra sport utility vehicles suffering double-digit declines. Nissan rolled out a Sentra compact, a new Altima sedan and a Versa subcompact in the second half of 2006 but they ran into stiff competition. Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. had previously launched their subcompacts, the Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit, and Toyota had rolled out a redesigned Camry sedan. The fourth-quarter sales rebound that Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn had predicted failed to materialize. Earlier this month, Ghosn declared a "performance crisis" as he announced that Nissan would miss its profit targets for the fiscal year ending March 31. The company is expected to report its first annual profit decline in seven years because of weak sales in the United States and Japan. Toyota and Honda, which have increased sales in the lucrative U.S. market, are on track to report record earnings. The two Japanese automakers started assembling vehicles in the United States in the 1980s and have not cut jobs, although they have offered pension enhancements at plants at times to spur retirements. General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., which are losing money in their home market, are eliminating 60,000 factory jobs in North America through buyouts. Last week, DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group announced plans to cut 11,000 hourly workers, as Detroit's automakers move to bring production in line with demand for their vehicles. Nissan is offering buyouts only to workers at its Smyrna assembly plant and the nearby Decherd engine plant in Tennessee. The Smyrna plant, which employs 5,200 workers, produces the Altima and Maxima sedans, Frontier pickups and Xterra and Pathfinder SUVs. About 1,000 people work at the Decherd factory, making engines for those vehicles. Fewer assembly workers are required as demand for cars rises and declines for trucks. "The Pathfinder is a three-row vehicle. It has more parts simply because it is a larger vehicle," said Nissan spokeswoman Vicki Smith. Nissan's action also reflects the downside of industrywide productivity gains. The high productivity of Nissan's Tennessee plants -- consistently rated among the industry's most productive -- means fewer people are needed over time to produce the same output. In addition, the Smyrna plant's attrition rate is a low 2.5 percent, Nissan said. Buyouts have not been extended to the 3,200 workers at Nissan's newer plant in Canton, Miss., which has a higher attrition rate. "We expect that Canton's regular attrition will get them to the right staffing levels," Smith said. The program is voluntary. Employees have until March 13 to choose to take a buyout, in which case they would leave by June 30. "We expect around 300 will accept the program," said Dan Gaudette, Nissan's senior vice president for manufacturing. The company hasn't said what it will do if too few workers take the offer.