Decatur GE plant thriving, adds jobs
The future of General Electric’s Decatur plant was uncertain just four years ago, but a recent expansion of the local operation has made managers optimistic.
A $43 million investment led to 34 jobs and the manufacturing of top-freezer refrigerators that are supposed to be more energy efficient. The first of the refrigerators began coming off the assembly line last week.
Things were unsettled in 2008 when GE explored selling or spinning off its appliance division. As the economy worsened and GE couldn’t find a buyer, the company decided to invest in new products and infrastructure for the division.
“There have been a number of important manufacturers that have closed through the recession ... but we’ve survived and are thriving,” said Scott Ossewaarde, interim plant manager in Decatur.
Ossewaarde said GE’s strengths historically have been in manufacturing and technology, so the company recommitted itself to manufacturing in the U.S. and realized the importance of the “green” movement.
The Decatur facility produces 16-, 17- and 18-cubic-foot top-freezer refrigerators. New 18-cubic-foot models that were previously made in Louisville, Ky., were added to Decatur’s product line last week.
GE spokeswoman Kim Freeman said the plant received $6.5 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for machinery and equipment to produce energy-efficient refrigerators locally.
The 18-cubic-foot refrigerators will be geared toward the builder market for new homes, apartments and other construction sites, Ossewaarde said.
“We’re mixing the new model of refrigerators into the current 18-cubic-foot assembly line,” Operations Manager Neal Lumpkins said.
Last year, GE adopted a foam-blowing agent called cyclopentane to reduce the Decatur plant’s greenhouse gas emissions that are produced during the insulating process of manufacturing the top-freezer refrigerators.
The switch to cyclopentane from the plant’s former foam-blowing agent has helped cut greenhouse gas emissions from the Decatur facility by 99 percent, officials said. Cyclopentane also makes the product more energy efficient.
“It was a win, win, win situation,” Ossewaarde said.
“It makes our products more competitive and drives the company to challenge all plants to reduce their carbon footprint.”
In October 2010, GE announced plans to invest $432 million to establish four refrigeration design and manufacturing centers of excellence in the U.S. and bring in new “green” jobs by 2014.
The Decatur plant was one of the four.
In addition to the $43 million investment GE made to create a center of excellence for top-freezers and green manufacturing in Decatur, Freeman said the company invested $16 million to transition to the new product insulation process.
Ossewaarde has temporarily replaced former GE Decatur plant manager Tom Rossi, who retired earlier this year. GE is interviewing for the position.
Rossi saw the plant through some difficult economic times.
Mike Searcy, human resources manager, said the plant has not had what GE officials consider layoffs in the past four years.
But employees have been temporarily idled for lack of work since 2008. The Decatur plant shut down its operation for two weeks in both 2009 and 2010, and one week in 2011, Freeman said.
During slow work periods, Freeman said, production employees receive GE income extension aid and unemployment benefits.
“If the demand goes down, it’s called lack of work where we sometimes take days off so that our inventory doesn’t get too far ahead for the demand of product,” she said.
Location: 2328 Point Mallard Drive, Decatur
Total workers: 1,000
Average employee pay: $21.85 an hour. In May, GE began hiring new production workers at $11 an hour. Employees who work second and third shifts receive an extra $1.
Decatur plant size: 850,000 square feet