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The economy may be starting to grow but people are still losing jobs. A few firms, as a matter of policy, refused to lay off even a single employee. New Hampshire Public Radio's Jon Greenberg looks at a couple of them.
JON GREENBERG: The Hypertherm factory sits hidden in the woods, not far from Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
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GREENBERG: Inside, in a testing room, a jet of superheated ionized gas slices smoothly through an inch of plate steel. Hypertherm is one of the world's top manufacturers of plasma cutting tools. Director of operations, Jim Miller, says that when the world is making big heavy things, Hypertherm does quite well.
Mr. JIM MILLER (Director of Operations, Hypertherm): Maybe a shipbuilder, automotive manufacturing, anywhere where you see flat steel, you would see an application for our products.
GREENBERG: Unfortunately, late last year, the making of ships and cars pretty much ground to a halt. Sales of cutting systems at Hypertherm dropped 50 percent. How many workers did the company layoff? None. It put them to work doing other things.
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GREENBERG: Normally, Lindsey Grace works on the production floor. Now, she rakes leaves and maintains the grounds.
Ms. LINDSEY GRACE (Employee, Hypertherm): In the beginning I was really scared to lose my job. Now I have had the opportunity to just come and do something different to help the company out.
GREENBERG: Hypertherm saves money by doing everything in-house that it possibly can. Plus, it puts workers into training or assigns them to teams to re-jigger the production line. The goal is to emerge from recession in a better position to compete. Company founder and CEO, Dick Couch, sees no tension between doing well by the employees and doing well by the company.
Mr. DICK COUCH (Founder and CEO, Hypertherm): Once you have a highly trained technical workforce and the last thing you want to do is lay them off. This isn't altruism. It's good business.
GREENBERG: Couch says that if he were making T-shirts, this strategy would fail. High-end products, experienced workers and guaranteed jobs are a winning combination. Very few firms fit this mold but Hypertherm is not alone. The granddaddy of the no-layoff companies is Lincoln Electric in Cleveland, Ohio. The maker of welding systems has been around for well over a 100 years. It's a global company with over a billion in sales. Lincoln Electric CEO, John Stropki, says people considering this model need to go into it with their eyes wide open.
Mr. JOHN STROPKI (CEO, Lincoln Electric): This doesn't come without additional pressure and challenges for management, and I would say, equally, it doesn't come without additional pressures and challenges for the workforce.
GREENBERG: Managers give up the flexibility to hire and fire as they please. Workers give up a guaranteed paycheck. Profit sharing is a big part of the model. When business is good, pay goes up. When it goes down, so does your pay. At Lincoln Electric, the workweek shrank to 32 hours. Labor journalist Frank Koller just finished a book about no-layoff companies. Koller says this model rubs organized labor the wrong way. They prefer a guaranteed income to a guaranteed job.
Mr. FRANK KOLLER (Labor Journalist): Union leaders were very, very suspicious of this. They saw this as a tool for exploitation, and there's no question that in some work environments, it probably was.
GREENBERG: But Koller says today, workers at these companies do very well. The typical Lincoln Electric assembler can make over $70,000. Jordan Siegel at the Harvard Business School says the American economy would benefit if more firms adopted this model of shared gain and shared sacrifice. He has been doing work in South Korea where the recession had relatively little impact on unemployment.
Professor JORDAN SIEGEL (Harvard Business School): There has been just a lot of this kind of shared sacrifice, people sharing some reductions in compensation in order to avoid layoffs.
GREENBERG: If these firms, both overseas and at home, are so successful, why don't more companies jump on board? Siegel says mainly because this idea is too different. He hopes the recession prompts more executives to take off the blinders when it comes to the no-layoff option.
For NPR News, I'm Jon Greenberg in Concord, New Hampshire.
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