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General Electric CEO Meets With Rutland Workers

According to Forbes Global 2000 list of the world’s largest public companies - General Electric comes in at number four, behind JP Morgan and two Chinese banks.

The company that was founded by Thomas Edison has had a presence in Rutland since the 1950s. With more than 1,150 employees at it’s two Rutland manufacturing plants it’s the county’s largest for-profit employer.

On Wednesday, Jeffrey Immelt, General Electric’s CEO toured the company’s plant in Rutland Town for the first time with Governor Peter Shumlin.  Amidst the noise of heavy machinery, dozens of GE workers lined up to say hello and explain their jobs.

Immelt didn’t take questions from reporters, but spoke with workers like Jonathan Cheney a second year apprentice in GE’s maintenance program.

Cheney said the chance to speak with Immelt was once in a lifetime experience. “It’s pretty huge that we get to sell our program and tell him the value of who we are and the importance of the apprenticeship process,” said Cheney.

Company officials say their apprenticeship programs will help them meet the growing demand for skilled workers. 

In the last three years GE Aviation has spent $75 million to expand its Rutland Town plant which manufactures fan blades and compressors for commercial and military jet engines.

In addition the company added more than 200 new jobs and plan to invest another $20 million and continue hiring next year.

Much of the growth in Rutland is being driven by rising production rates of the GEnx, the jet engine that powers Boeing’s new 787 and 747-8 aircraft. GE officials say the GEnx engine is among the world’s most fuel-efficient and demand for them is rising.

Speaking to a packed house at the Paramount Theatre Wednesday evening, Jeffrey Immelt said Rutland will play a vital role in helping GE Aviation meet a whopping $100 billion backlog in orders.

“So when I go to a plant like Rutland, I say, we have a nice problem,” said Immelt. “The nice problem is we’ve got a ton of business coming your way.  Now that’s good news.  It’s good news from a jobs standpoint.  It’s good news from a productivity standpoint. It’s good news for the factory.”  But Immelt pointed out, “There’s a challenge with that.  Our customers have placed unbelievable faith in us to be able to deliver - deliver on time, with the right specs and at the right price.”

Immelt believes Rutland will be able to do the job, but he says the local plants will have to stay competitive and avoid complacency.  He says the community and regulatory environment needs to be supportive as well.

Ironically, while GE employees from Rutland were applauding Jeffrey Immelt inside the Paramount, dozens of employees from GE’s plant in nearby Fort Edward, New York were protesting the CEO outside the theater shouting “Keep the Jobs in Fort Edward!”

Peter Knowlton a regional union leader said GE recently announced that it was closing the 70-year-old Fort Edward facility and moving all the jobs to Clearwater Florida where he says workers get much lower nonunion wages. 

He says “People in Clearwater make $12 an hour versus our members in Fort Edward that make on average $25 or $26.”

Knowlton says “It’s a concerted effort by General Electric to be cutting their manufacturing pay in half and we’re here to tell him that there’s another way to do it and the company has an obligation to the Fort Edwards community to keep the jobs in Washington County.”

He said that the Fort Edward plant had employed four generations and needed to be saved.

While the protestors could be heard in the theater, Jeffrey Immelt did not acknowledge them until nearly the end of his talk.  

“My dad worked for GE for 38 years I have sympathy for everybody,” said Immelt.  “Quite honestly I don’t need those guys outside to tell me the value of a GE job . . .I know it, I’ve lived it. I get it.”As a CEO Immelt admitted there are plenty of bad days.  But he says what he likes best is seeing his employees at work, in well run factories.

He told the audience that he tries to ensure his manufacturing plants are good members of the communities they’re in. But he says now and then it’s also important for communities to step back and look at the situation from his point of view.  

Immelt’s visit to Rutland was hosted by Rutland Regional Medical Center. The hospital is developing a new diagnostic imaging center with GE technologies.

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