DETROIT – Ford Motor Co. is “right-sized” with its vehicle-production capacity but needs to add thousands of people to its U.S. workforce to meet growing demand, its CEO says.

Speaking at the North American International Auto Show here, Alan Mulally says Ford aims to add 4,000 hourly jobs this year, as well as 750 salaried positions. Next year, that number will grow by 2,500.

Mulally says an announcement will be made shortly as to which global regions workers will be added, although some media reports indicate most of the new jobs will be in the U.S.

Ford has “very few people” on layoff right now in the U.S., he says, so workers here will be hired at entry level under the new United Auto Workers union’s negotiated two-tier wage system, which pays $14-$15 an hour.

The two-tier wage system will help Ford compete in the small-car segment against Asian auto makers in the U.S., the executive says. In the past, high UAW wages prohibited the auto maker from producing small cars here at a profit. Mulally cites the success Ford’s slew of new small cars have seen worldwide as evidence the auto maker is ready to go head-to-head with its Asian rivals.

“I have a lot of confidence because of how customers like the new Ka (A-segment car) in Europe and new Fiesta (B-car) around the world,” he says “And now we have the whole family of new Focuses.”

With Ford profitable in 2010, some in the UAW have expressed a desire to rollback a portion of the givebacks granted to the auto maker in the last round of labor negotiations, when the U.S. market was tanking.

Ford and the UAW will meet later this year to hammer out a new agreement, but Mulally says there is little chance the two-tier wage system will be eliminated.

“I think the whole discussion is going to continue to be how we can continue to improve our competitiveness so we can even accelerate the growth of the business and offer even more jobs,” he says.

While the new job openings are positive news, they won’t replace the tens of thousands of jobs shed during the ongoing recession. However, the days of mass layoffs may be over, Mulally hints.

“The fact we (produce) more vehicles in every plant and can adjust production is going to allow us to have a much more stable workforce,” he says.

bpope@wardsauto.com