Darting to work: Wisconsin workers could fill Belvidere jobs
Janesville native Dave McKee expects to see more traffic later this year on his daily commute to Chrysler's assembly plant in Belvidere, Ill.
That's because Chrysler plans to add about 1,800 jobs at the plant 40 miles south of Janesville, and some of those jobs could be filled by dislocated Rock County residents.
Aout 9 percent of the plant's workforce of 2,700 comes from Rock and Walworth counties in southern Wisconsin.
The expected increase in workers to a high-water mark of 4,500 later this year presents another opportunity for local job seekers willing to work for about $15.78 per hour, which is about half the rate paid to longtime auto workers.
"If someone is willing to commute from Wisconsin, they are more than welcome to apply," said Jodi Tinson, a Chrysler Group spokeswoman.
James Otterstein, Rock County's economic development manager, said commutes have been a traditional part of auto industry jobs in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois for years.
Wisconsin residents historically have commuted to Belvidere, he said, and Illinois residents were a significant portion of the payroll at the now shuttered General Motors assembly plant in Janesville.
"Any time there are employment opportunities in the stateline area, it bodes well for residents in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois," Otterstein said.
Workers in Belvidere now build the Jeep Patriot and Jeep Compass, and production of those vehicles will end next year. At least one—but possibly three—other vehicles are expected to be added to the Belvidere mix.
The new jobs will support the addition of a third shift at the plant. About 500 of them are targeted toward production of the new Dodge Dart in this year's second quarter.
In addition to the facility-specific jobs announcement, a union president told a Detroit newspaper that the plant's nine local suppliers are expected to add another 1,000 people to support the added capacity.
Chrysler also is bumping its planned investment in a new 638,000-square-foot body shop from $600 million to nearly $700 million. The investment includes new machinery, tooling and material handling equipment for Dart production.
"It was not by chance that we chose Belvidere to make this investment and build the new Dodge Dart," Chrysler Group Chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne told employees last week. "Our decision is evidence of the faith we have in your level of commitment and your passion to deliver great products for our customers. You have been essential in our ability to author a remarkable story of recovery."
Of the 245 people from Rock and Walworth counties who work in Belvidere, the vast majority—231—hail from Rock County, including McKee and 68 others from Janesville.
"I'm sure that number will grow," said McKee, who has nearly 24 years in at Belvidere. "I've had lots of people who know I work there ask me how they can apply, and a lot of them are good kids who just want to make a little more money.
"I think there are a lot of them out there, and (Chrysler) will have their choice of people."
In Janesville, United Auto Workers Local 95 President Mike Marcks said he wishes the Belvidere plant and its workers nothing but success.
In fact, the Janesville union has been notifying its displaced electricians of jobs at the Illinois plant. He hopes other skilled trades employees also will find work south of the border.
"I also hope it works out for some of our production people who have stuck around and are looking for jobs," Marcks said, noting that former GM assemblers would receive the lower pay rate at Belvidere.
The new jobs will be added as part of a new operating system that allows the plant to run an additional 49 days per year. The "3-2-120" schedule, as it's known, uses three crews, working four 10-hour straight-time days per week for a total of 120 hours of production time.
A typical two-shift production schedule provides 80 hours per week of production time.
The last time Belvidere ran three shifts was in March 2008 when there were about 3,600 employees.
Just a year later, production idled as Chrysler worked through bankruptcy. The company came under Fiat control in mid-2009, and U.S. sales improved in 2010 and 2011.
McKee said the Belvidere plant has come a long way in less than three years.
"Even though our plant is in a cornfield and not part of what I would call the Detroit clique, they've given us the work," he said. "Whenever they want to try something new, they stick it in Belvidere first, and we make it happen."
BELVIDERE ASSEMBLY HISTORY
The Belvidere, Ill., plant was completed in 1965 and produced its first car on July 7, 1965. The product line from 1965 to 1977 included Plymouth and Dodge two-door and four-door models, including station wagons, and the Chrysler Town & Country station wagon.
1977: The plant is converted to front-wheel-drive production.
1978-87: Product lines include Plymouth Horizon and Dodge Omni.
1987: The plant undergoes a $367 million, 16-week model changeover to produce the Chrysler New Yorker and Dodge Dynasty, the company's full-size front-wheel-drive four-door sedans.
1989: The plant has a $72 million model changeover for production of 1990 models that include the Chrysler Imperial and New Yorker Salon.
1994: The plant is converted to produce the Plymouth and Dodge Neon. Production of the Neon ends in September 2005.
2005: The Dodge Caliber is launched in December, followed by the Jeep Compass in May 2006 and Jeep Patriot in December 2006. The last Dodge Caliber rolls off the line Dec. 19, 2011.
2010: Chrysler Group announces it will invest $600 million to support the production of future models in 2012. The investment includes the construction of a 638,000-square-foot body shop as well as the installation of new machinery, tooling and material handling equipment.
2012: Chrysler announces the expansion of the plant to three-shift production and the hiring of 1,800 workers, including 500 for the soon-to-be-released Dodge Dart.