Jackie Lee was stunned when he applied for a job at General Electric's locomotive plant in far north Fort Worth, but was rejected.
"I thought I would be a shoo-in," said Lee, 49, an aircraft mechanic at American's Alliance Airport facility, which recently closed as part of the airline's bankruptcy reorganization. "I can take a piece of sheet metal and form it however I have to, to fit into an airplane."
Lee, who has 22 years of experience at American but recently accepted a buyout package to leave that job, applied for a position as a locomotive assembler at the plant, known as GE Manufacturing Solutions. It was no ordinary job interview, he said; at one point, he and other applicants were placed on teams and asked to build things with Legos.
The Haslet resident thought he did well in the interview -- his group built an airplane with their toy building blocks -- but afterward he was notified he was "not a fit" for the job.
With about a month to go before the scheduled opening of the locomotive factory, GE Transportation, a division of General Electric, is still trying to fill its first 300 jobs.
The locomotive factory is under construction just west of Texas Motor Speedway. When complete, it will churn out GE's Evolution diesel-electric locomotives that a company official described as "the most fuel efficient and environmentally friendly heavy haul locomotive in the world."
"We're not expecting production to begin until the end of January, so we're still ramping up," said spokesman Manley Ford.
Next door to the locomotive plant, GE has built another factory, where workers will assemble electric drive wheels for mining trucks. Operations in that facility began six months ago.
As of last week, GE had hired 215 workers in Fort Worth, he said. By November, more than 12,000 people had submitted job applications through www.getjobsintexas.com, the company's website.
GE is taking its time with hiring, he said, because the jobs require more than just traditional skills.
"This is not your traditional environment," Ford said. "We are looking for people who have welding and other skills, but also the capacity to work as a team and as partners. It's an exciting place to work."
GE locomotives are sold worldwide, and among the customers is Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway. In addition to the Fort Worth facility, GE Transportation will continue to operate its original plant in Erie, Pa.
Millions in incentives
In May 2011, GE announced plans to convert a vacant building into a nearly 1 million-square-foot locomotive factory at Texas 114 and Farm Road 156, just north of the AllianceTexas development. The white building featuring checkered flag patterns on its exterior was originally built as a speculative property.
A few months after the initial announcement, GE officials said they would also build a second structure -- this one nearly 300,000 square feet -- to make electric drive wheels for mining trucks.
In all, the GE facility could employ 875 by 2016 -- with most employees at the factory earning from $18 to $23.50 per hour. Those are competitive wages in the Texas market, a GE official said, although according to a union official the rate is about $10 an hour less than what's being paid for the same work at GE's locomotive plant in Pennsylvania.
Even so, the jobs rank with other higher-paying manufacturing jobs in the area. For example, in September 2011, union workers at General Motors nationwide -- including GM's Arlington plant -- approved a new four-year contract providing profit-sharing rather than raises for many employees. At the time, entry-level GM workers were receiving a base wage of $15.78, about half what longtime workers were paid. The new contract raised the base pay by 22 percent.
The announcement of GE's intent to build in Fort Worth came after a flurry of activity among local business and government officials, much of it behind the scenes, to make the project a reality.
As an incentive to lure GE Transportation to Texas, the governor's office kicked in $4.2 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund, an account created in 2003 to lure jobs to the state.
In Fort Worth, city officials approved an 85 percent abatement of city taxes to the property, which is expected to be worth $5.4 million over 10 years.
A $744,845 grant from the Texas Workforce Commission was awarded to cover training costs for new GE hires, who are attending courses at North Central Texas College in Gainesville and the Tarrant County College South Campus in Fort Worth.
Also, Hillwood Properties, the company in charge of the AllianceTexas development that includes Alliance Airport, had to be brought in to make it possible for GE to use some area railroad tracks to test its new locomotives.
Railroad right of way
One of the reasons GE was attracted to the far north Fort Worth property was its location adjacent to a BNSF main lane, providing space for a test track and rail access. But GE officials learned that BNSF is planning to move its main lane a few thousand feet to the west, to get around growth in the nearby cities of Haslet and Justin and make way for a runway expansion at Alliance Airport.
The original plan was for BNSF to abandon the old main line once the new one was built, and make the right-of-way available to Hillwood for commercial development. Instead, Hillwood agreed to give up some of its rights to the BNSF right-of-way to make room for a test track.
"We just made those rights available to the city of Fort Worth and others to accommodate GE's needs," said Russell Laughlin, Hillwood Properties senior vice president. "Although they [GE] are not in a Hillwood facility, they're right across the highway and we consider them part of AllianceTexas. It's good to have them in the region."
About three miles of test track is needed for the new GE locomotives, and officials are in the process of determining precisely where it should be built. One option is to allow GE to continue using the tracks south of Texas 114. Officials with the Texas Department of Transportation have said they're willing to redesign the Texas 114/FM 156 interchange, which is being rebuilt as part of the ongoing work on Texas 114, to make room for the test track.
Another option involves building a second track along the BNSF main line, extending about three miles north into Justin. Denton County officials could chip in the funds to build that second line -- at an estimated cost of up to $6 million -- and discussions about that option are taking place.
Texas Transportation Commissioner Bill Meadows credited the Fort Worth Chamber with doing much of the leg work to bring together all the agencies involved in luring GE to the region.
While Fort Worth officials are elated at the arrival of a new employer, members of a union representing GE Transportation workers in Pennsylvania have been critical of the move.
Texas workers will be paid far less than their counterparts in Erie, who typically make about $31 an hour, said Roger Zaczyk, president of Local 506 of the United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers. And workers in the northern state are worried that GE Transportation will shift work to the non-union plant in Texas and lay off workers in Pennsylvania.
"We've been building locomotives up here for close to 100 years. Our work is union pride work, family sustaining," Zaczyk said. "They're going to build an inferior product for a lower wage. The union people are kind of dismayed GE has decided to move what has been a quite successful business with very high demand from our customers from up here to down there."
GE Transportation"s Ford said the pay being offered in Fort Worth is "part of a total wage and benefit package that is well positioned for the local market for assemblers, maintenance technicians, machinists and welders."
"The compensation package is also appropriate given that this is an entirely new work force that will require many hours of both technical and team process training," he said.
GE officials also have said their Fort Worth facility is an expansion project, and not an attempt to move jobs from Erie.
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
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