GE hiring builds hope
Locomotive builder to add 200 jobs
Robert Veith worked at Erie’s GE plant 19 years ago and thinks this may be his best chance since then to be rehired at the company. (GREG WOHLFORD/Erie Times-News)
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By Peter Panepento
Robert Veith spent 11 years helping to build locomotives at GE Transportation's Lawrence Park Township plant until he was laid off in 1985.
He's spent the past 19 years hoping for another opportunity to work at Erie County's largest employer.
Veith, now a fabricator at Modern Industries Inc., spent Wednesday morning in a crammed lobby at the Erie CareerLink office, waiting for perhaps his best chance yet at returning to a company once known locally as "Generous Electric."
GE Transportation — fresh off a year in which it produced a near-record 826 locomotives, launched an array of new products and added about 200 jobs — said Wednesday it plans to hire another 200 new skilled workers beginning Feb. 1.
All of the new positions — available to welders, assemblers, machinists and fabricators with at least seven years professional experience in their fields — are hourly positions.
"The reason we bring these 200 workers on right now is 2005 is looking very strong," GE Transportation spokesman Patrick Jarvis said.
GE Transportation's decision, along with the recent announcement that Lord Corp. is expanding its local payroll by 110, is seen by many as evidence that Erie's job market is finally improving.
For Veith and hundreds of other local manufacturing workers, GE Transportation's decision is much more personal.
It is a chance at a better paycheck, a stable work environment and, in some cases, a new life.
"I'm just trying to improve my lot in life," Veith said. "It would probably double my salary."
The Erie CareerLink office has had more than 2,000 workers come into the office this week seeking jobs, mostly at General Electric. (GREG WOHLFORD/Erie Times-News)
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Erie County's unemployment rate in November was 6.6 percent, well above the state and national rates of 5.4 percent.
That figure has varied little during the past year, suggesting that many of the manufacturing workers who lost their jobs during the downturn of 2001 to 2003 have yet to find new positions.
Given that, the recent hiring announcements have some believing that Erie's job market might finally be improving and that unemployment will wane in 2005.
"It says that we're starting to see capital investment on a larger scale," Erie County Executive Rick Schenker said. "It should make 2005 a banner year for Erie County."
Nick Schultz, site administrator for the Erie CareerLink office, which posts jobs and collects applications for local businesses, said the number of job orders at his office totaled 430 on Wednesday.
Those orders totaled about 300 in late 2003 — a sign that hiring will likely pick up countywide during the first quarter.
"In the coming weeks, we're expecting to see more (openings)," Schultz said. "It hasn't been reflected in any of the quarterly numbers, but it appears that things are improving."
GE Transportation is adding workers, though the company expects to fall short of its 2004 locomotive production total of 826.
Although locomotive production during the first two quarters of the year are expected to mirror the first two quarters of 2004, Jarvis said it is still too early to say whether the company will approach its 2004 performance during the second half of 2005.
Instead, the company is conservatively projecting that locomotive production will outpace its 2003 total of 526.
But GE Transportation is still facing a labor shortage, largely because it is anticipating significant increases in some of its other production lines and is in the first year of production of its new Evolution Series locomotive.
That growth can be seen in several areas:
— GE Transportation this month began building gearboxes for wind turbines that will be sold to GE Wind. The new product is expected to generate between $30 million and $40 million in new business for the company in 2005, officials have said.
— Orders for locomotive modernization kits also are on the rise. GE Transportation plans to produce about 200 of the kits. Half of that total will be built for Kazakhstan's largest railroad company. GE Transportation also has been making inroads in selling the kits in Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Russia, as well as in North America.
— Sales of its off-highway vehicle units were up 53 percent in 2004, Jarvis said. The company expects that total to increase by 10 percent or more in 2005.
GE Transportation, like many manufacturing companies, is conservative about taking on new workers.
But its across-the-board growth, coupled with an array of new markets overseas, has the company confident it will need the 200 new workers for the long term, Jarvis said.
"It costs us money to hire, train and bring on line a new worker," Jarvis said. "Our goal is these 200 workers are not short-term hires."
PETER PANEPENTO can be reached at 870-1707 or by e-mail.
BY THE NUMBERS
4,000 — Current GE employment in Erie County
4,200 — Anticipated GE employment in Erie County after new hires
826 — GE locomotive production in 2004
Lines were long
Michael Slupski drove through the night from Charleston, S.C., to be among the first in line at the Erie CareerLink office Wednesday morning to apply for one of the 200 open jobs at GE Transportation.
Slupski, a North East truck driver and longtime welder, was not alone.
CareerLink's spacious Lovell Place office has been jammed all week, as job-hungry manufacturing workers have flocked to the office for a chance to land a job at Erie County's largest employer.
"We've had two weeks' worth of people in two days," Nick Schultz, site administrator for the state-run employment assistance office, said Wednesday morning.
On Monday and Tuesday alone, about 1,700 people came to the CareerLink office for help. That number is more than half the office's typical monthly volume of about 3,300 applicants.
Another 800 had been expected Wednesday — a crowd that prompted the office to extend its hours into the evening to accommodate the demand.
Most of the applicants were there to apply with GE Transportation.
But Schultz said several other companies — among them Lord Corp., Welch Foods and Tim Hortons — also were posting positions and drawing crowds.
The crowd at CareerLink reflects the convergence of two trends — the depressed conditions that have characterized Erie's job market during the past three years meeting with a recent increase in the number of available jobs.
And that collision could lead to more busy days at the CareerLink office in the coming months.
When GE Transportation begins hiring, it will likely pluck some of its new workers from an array of smaller Erie manufacturing companies.
As a result, many of those companies will soon be trolling for new workers through CareerLink to replace what they've lost.
@ For more information about CareerLink's services and job listings, go to www.pacareerlink.state.pa.us.
PETER PANEPENTO can be reached at 870-1707 or by e-mail.
GE Transportation competitor sold
GE Transportation's largest competitor — General Motors' Electro-Motive Division — will soon have a new owner.
GM said Wednesday it has reached an agreement to sell its diesel-locomotive business to an investor group led by Greenbriar Equity Group and Berkshire Partners.
Terms of the sale were not disclosed Wednesday.
The deal, which is expected to close during the first quarter, is contingent on the Electro-Motive Division's completion of contract negotiations with a bargaining unit from the United Auto Workers.
GM's locomotive division employs about 2,600 at manufacturing plants in London, Ontario; and LaGrange, Ill.
Last changed: January 13. 2005 5:37AM
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