Prepaing For Takeoff

Gulfstream’s expansion in Savannah will mean more than 1,000 well-paying jobs for the community. Local and state leaders are making sure there are well-trained workers available to fill them.

Looking north from the window of the fourth-floor conference room at his office on Hutchinson Island in the Savannah harbor, Lynn Pitts can see South Carolina, where his counterparts are massed for an invasion into Georgia.

“I am well aware they are there,” says Pitts, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Savannah Economic Development Authority (SEDA).

He felt their presence even more 18 months ago when he got word that one of Savannah’s most valued industries, Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., was planning a seven-year, $300 million expansion projected to add 1,100 new jobs to its present workforce of some 5,000.

Pitts recalls that consultants for Gulfstream had conducted studies on a number of states in the Southeast to see which ones had airports to meet the company’s needs, what incentives were offered, such as tax breaks, and what other lures were being dangled before interested industries. It was all a normal and prudent part of a company’s expansion or site selection plans.

“I’ll never forget when the consultants – who are paid to be the bad guys sometimes – said, ‘We looked at these five or six states and Georgia came out dead last in terms of what is being offered. So what can y’all do to help us?’”

It turned out there were some specific items Savannah needed to address. First was a matter of jurisdiction – Savannah’s city limits ran through the Gulfstream property. A Gulfstream parts warehouse, scheduled for conversion to an assembly line facility in the expansion plans, was located in the city of Savannah, which has an inventory tax. Chatham County, which has no inventory tax, held the rest of the jet maker’s property.

There’s a big difference in the tax on spare parts and that on a $40 million jet; the inventory tax on the planes would represent a major expense for Gulfstream. (Rival South Carolina has no inventory tax.) That problem was solved when the city took the rare step of “de-annexing” and quietly returning the warehouse property to the county and out of the tax zone. That left three other factors for locals to wrestle with.

“Number one was employee training,” Pitts says Gulfstream’s consultants told him, “getting these 1,100 new employees up to speed and working quickly, and what would the state and the community do to help us do that.”

Quick work on the part of Savannah’s economic development team got Gulfstream together with training sources and, with the other two issues of concern resolved – some traffic improvements and tax abatements – the expansion was an-nounced last year.

Construction on the first of 13 new buildings is under way, along with several renovation projects on existing structures. In all, Gulf-stream’s Savannah facility will be expanded to 2.7 million square feet from its present 1.6 million square feet, and 77 acres will be added to the site. “It was and is huge for this community,” Pitts says.

Pitts estimates as many as 3,000 new jobs will be created among the contractors, vendors and suppliers who will serve Gulfstream during the expansion.

Gulfstream officials say the expansion is directly related to increased demand for products and services; the company’s growth is being fed by globalization. This year, for the first time, Gulfstream has sold more planes outside the United States than inside. Its G550 model, with a range of 6,750 nautical miles and a capacity for 18 passengers, is popular with multinational companies, foreign governments and even as a military reconnaissance plane.

The company’s smaller G150 model can be outfitted to seat up to eight passengers and is coveted as a valuable addition to American corporate fleets and shared ownership companies for cross-country travel.

Gulfstream’s product support division, which includes routine maintenance, as well an assortment of other services, has seen an impressive growth in demand, soon to be met with a facility double the size of its present building. All this translates to a need for more workers.

Although confidentiality agreements between Georgia’s aerospace industry and the federal government prohibit the disclosure of average salaries, jobs related to building airplanes in the state are generally considered to be among the higher paying manufacturing positions. Nation-ally, for instance, avionics technicians average about $22 an hour, while aerospace engineers average some $43 an hour.

To meet the training needs necessary to keep a steady supply of applicants streaming into the company’s employment office, training programs at Savannah Technical College would have to be expanded or created. Additional workforce development would come from QuickStart, a state program administered by the Georgia Department of Technical and Adult Education and designed to rapidly deploy experts in the art of analyzing Gulfstream’s ongoing employment needs and the training necessary to meet them.

The process took on a drill-team precision as managers of assembly lines, warehouses and administration offices forecast required jobs to the Gulfstream workforce development office, which sent them to the training sources, which in turn developed coursework, recruited students, taught them and then sent graduates to the company’s employment office. From all accounts, since the formal announcement of the expansion on March 6, 2006, there have been few missteps.

A Jet Stream

On a Friday morning, a number of sleek jets are starting to take shape on the production floor of Gulf-stream Aerospace Corp.’s 196-acre complex in the Savannah suburb of Garden City. What looks to the uneducated eye to be a busy workday is actually a day off for most of the men and women who populate the Gulfstream workforce here. The normal four-day workweek for many of these employees is one of the perks that come with a job at Gulfstream.

Workers this day are at their tasks to help the company keep up with a growing demand for its products, a line of luxury jet planes that cost between $14 million and $48 million. Gulfstream is set to ramp up its production even more and, in the process, add the skilled aerospace workers necessary to meet new and growing demands for its jets. For Gulfstream human resources specialist Ashley Samuels, putting those new workers on the line is a singular priority.

“We have expanded our recruiting to create training opportunities for people in the area,” says Sam-uels, who is Gulfstream’s workforce development program manager. “We are growing our own here locally.”

By partnering with Savannah Technical College and Georgia’s QuickStart program, Gulfstream is making sure the flow of qualified job applicants remains strong. To do that, Samuels is in constant contact with production line managers and supervisors to assess the company’s future hiring needs and pass the information on to Savannah Tech, which puts in place the training to meet those needs.

Gulfstream has a long history with Savannah Tech – the company built its first plane here in 1967 – an institutional relationship that has strengthened over the years.

“I think that relationship building is at the core of our being able to meet the employer’s needs,” says Gail Eubanks, executive director of enrollment, management and marketing at Savannah Tech. “We have to be able to listen to their expectations, their wants, their frustrations; and we have to match that with the services we can offer.”

The search for new workers as Gulfstream’s expansion unfolds has created a few subtle changes in corporate culture. When a call came up from the cabinetmaking department for someone experienced in finishing the woodwork that appoints the jets’ plush interiors, Samuels learned the department manager had an idea that might have seemed at first to be a bit off-course.

“He said, ‘I can use people who graduated from Savannah Tech’s automotive collision and repair area who have sanding and finishing experience,’” she recalls. “I wouldn’t have made that connection. Because managers are more aware there is a workforce development department now, and they know what our purpose is, they now call. Two years ago we weren’t thinking that way.” Those cabinets layered with exotic and expensive woods provided a case study in how Savannah Tech and QuickStart met Gulfstream’s needs for specific skills.

Eubanks says the school met Gulfstream’s need for aircraft exteriors workers with an aircraft assembly program. But filling the de-mand for interiors workers required developing a program in luxury craft cabinetmaking. “We’ve done that and are now offering that course,” she says.

To ensure Gulfstream’s expansion is staffed by workers who can hit the ground running, Georgia’s Quick-Start program sent experts to the company for face-to-face talks with production trainees, supervisors and managers. “QuickStart did a job analysis to determine what the five top competencies were that were important to someone being in that job,” Samuels says. The competences were taught in night classes as adjuncts to regular classes in aircraft related courses.

“Individuals who go through, say, the aircraft structures class then get additional training on teamwork and on safety and on continuous process improvement,” Samuels says. “QuickStart really helped us in that way, to get them kind of up to speed to make sure they were going to be what our managers were looking for.”

“The main thing we provide is customized, job-specific skills,” says Jan Melcher, director of project operations for QuickStart’s Savannah regional office. “Right now, we are providing training in cabinetry and upholstery. We’re working with interiors, providing classes on how to lay carpet, how to finish the interiors of the planes. Their ramp-up schedule is so large that we’re working in a phased-in approach.”

Among other programs, Quick-Start also educates prospects by conducting classes to acquaint students with Gulfstream’s workplace culture. “We assist with the orientation to the company, things like safety, as well as job specific skills such as reading blueprints, using power tools and installation processes,” Melcher says. “We make training flexible and accessible. Sometimes we import the classrooms to be onsite at a company’s location.

The training programs required by Gulfstream’s expansion have had a pleasant consequence for the rest of the Savannah area economy. Savannah Tech’s courses for students seeking certification as warehouse distribution specialists were initially designed to be a source of employees for Gulfstream’s expansion, as well as the company’s growing aircraft maintenance division, a $500 million-a-year revenue generator.

But graduates from the warehouse specialist program will find broad interest in their skills, thanks to rising demand created by companies such as Home Depot and Target that need warehouse workers to manage the flow of their goods being stored at the booming Port of Savannah.

“We have a number of distribution facilities and logistics businesses in our area,” Eubanks says.

On The Horizon

To make sure the Gulfstream employee pipeline doesn’t dry up, Savannah Tech keeps constant watch on the company’s long-range employment needs. “We’ve got some things on the horizon in avionic, airframe and power plant courses,” Eubanks says. “But those things are down the road. We’ll be ready.”

To further spread the recruiting net, Gulfstream is continuing and expanding a high school youth apprenticeship program. “We currently have 25 high school students working for us in different areas,” Samuels says. “The students work fulltime during the summer and do work-study in the school year. We have hired a large number of them to come to work for us when they graduate. They are extremely successful here.”

A less formal “job shadow” program brings about 35 high schoolers to Gulfstream each month to ob-serve different jobs and talk with workers, Samuels adds.

When the Commission for a New Georgia’s Workforce Development Task Force issued its report to the governor three years ago, the document’s executive summary held a troubling paragraph: “The lack of skilled workers was the key decision point for some companies that decided to locate or expand outside of Georgia.”

That threat was never an issue in the Gulfstream expansion, says economic developer Lynn Pitts. After dispatching the number one obstacle to the expansion plans, the inventory tax, the workforce development agenda fell in place and the long history between Savannah and Gulf-stream continued.

“During all the negotiations with Gulfstream, with all the meetings, one has stuck in my mind,” he recalls. “It was the one when [then Gulfstream COO, now president] Joe Lombardo said, ‘We want this expansion in Savannah because this workforce is second to none. This workforce builds the best planes and builds them faster and with fewer defects and that’s how we make our money.’

“The Savannah workforce is what kept that expansion here.”

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