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As General Motors’ Town of Tonawanda engine plant ramps up its new engine lines, waves of new workers are coming aboard, more than doubling the size of the workforce from its low point a few years ago.

As part of building the engines, more than 940 new hires have been trained in the ways of GM Tonawanda, and for some, about life in a modern factory. Among the new workers are those who have worked at the plant or another GM facility, and others, like Angelica Gozdziak, who are industry newcomers.

“It’s definitely going to be a life-changing career for me,” said Gozdziak, a Cheektowaga resident, who has previously worked as hairdresser, bartender and waitress. “It’s very exciting. My background, I wouldn’t have a retirement plan or anything like that. I didn’t have health insurance. This is opening up a whole new world for me.”

GM Tonawanda wants to get its new hires familiar with how it does business while maintaining the plant’s standards as the work force grows. The facility now has 1,651 employees, including 1,427 hourly workers, and it plans to fill another 250 positions by this summer (the window for applying for those jobs has already closed). With so many workers from different backgrounds, the “onboarding” training brings everyone together and stresses themes like safety, quality and teamwork.

Just a few years ago, the Tonawanda complex was worried about its future, not breaking in new hires. It had cut its workforce amid the recession and a drop-off in auto sales, while its corporate parent was struggling to survive. The manufacturing site’s long-term prospects seemed uncertain. Four years ago, amid bleak days for the U.S. auto industry, the plant’s employment was down to just 781 employees.

GM Tonawanda’s outlook has since brightened, thanks to two new-engine investments – worth a combined $825 million – and improved auto sales. The plant is in the midst of adding hundreds of workers, many of whom are already on the job.

Clinton Coggins, manager of organizational development and training at GM Tonawanda, describes the task that he and his fellow training specialists face: “How do we keep people safe, how do we prepare them to hit the floor running, and to make a quality product?”

Management and United Auto Workers Local 774 officials guide the training process. GM Tonawanda set up a training center in part of its vast complex, with a combination of classroom lessons and training exercises. New hires typically spend two weeks in the center, then another two weeks getting trained on the plant floor. Workers receive additional, specific training based on their job requirements.

Dan Struebel, safety/suggestion coordinator for UAW 774, said he and others involved in the training follow up on the production floor, to ensure what the workers learn is carrying over. “It’s constant training, continuous improvement. We’re always looking to get better.”

Being ready to go

The training specialists say the lessons and exercises they oversee have to be effective in order for the workers to make a smooth transition into their jobs. GM Tonawanda last year launched the first of the two new engine lines, producing four-cylinder Ecotec 2-liter and 2.5-liter engines, and launched the second line, for V6 and V8 engines, earlier this year.

“It’s very difficult to train on the floor when you have this mass quantity of people,” said Michael J. Zambito, launch training coordinator with UAW 774 at the plant. “We’ve never ‘onboarded’ this many people this fast.”

Coggins and Struebel repeatedly emphasize safety and quality to the workers, regardless of whether the new hire is a seasoned veteran or an industry rookie.

“It’s great to have the mix, because we make no assumptions on a person’s knowledge or prior training,” Coggins said. “We start from scratch. And what we find is, we have such a diverse group of people. They bring different experiences and it makes the training better, more lively. The ones that have some [manufacturing] background ask better questions. They know what to ask. And that helps those folks that have never been in a manufacturing facility before.”

Part of the workers’ training occurs in a “simulated work environment,” where their task is to assemble wooden cars on a mock-up of a moving production line. “It’s not about building cars,” Coggins said. “It’s about applying the manufacturing system.”

They learn how to work as part of a team, solve problems, standardize their work, and call for help when necessary. During a break, they gathered in an adjacent classroom to review their results with an instructor.

Glen Kern, an eight-year GM Tonawanda employee who was working with the new hires in the simulated work environment, said knowing when to ask for help on the line is crucial, to prevent quality problems or accidents. “We don’t want to hide the errors, we want to expose the errors so we can error-proof them, and they won’t happen again.”

Under national agreements between GM and the UAW, the wages for UAW employees transferring from other plants vary depending on their seniority, said Mary Ann Brown, a GM spokeswoman. Some of them come in at the existing rate of $28 per hour, while others come in at $19.28 per hour. Employees who are brand-new to GM come in at $15.78 per hour.

GM estimated it has invested about $4.5 million in 2012 and this year on training 942 new hires at the Tonawanda plant. All of that training added up to about 65,000 hours.

Workers are also receiving technical training from specialists from outside the plant, tied to the launch of the two new engine lines. And employees across GM Tonawanda combined have received thousands of hours of health and safety training this year.

‘Planting the seeds’

The “onboarding” training is a chance to convey a common message to all of the new hires and stress what the plant’s leadership values.

When a new training class convenes for the first time, plant manager Steve Finch and UAW 774 shop chairman Robert Coleman typically come in for a joint one-hour visit. They welcome the workers, answer questions and talk about the workplace, Coggins said. During their training, new hires will also hear about the plant’s work with groups like the United Way and the American Cancer Society.

Coggins said he hopes the broad-based preparation helps the new hires get familiar with the workplace. “We want to make them comfortable, because the last thing you want to do is send somebody to the floor and they’re worried about their paycheck, and they’re not focused on building the engine.”

The new engine lines are allowing some workers who had temporarily relocated to jobs at GM plants in other states, such as Ohio, to return, in addition to the people new to the industry.

Charles Everheart Sr., a Buffalo resident, liked the prospect of working for GM and earning more money for retirement.

“It’s different, because I’m a computer specialist,” he said. “Still machinery, but totally different.”

But Everheart said the training was making the requirements of his new job understandable. He said he was ready to get to work.

Gozdziak, the new hire from Cheektowaga, got interested in applying for a job because her boyfriend has worked as an electrician at the plant for 10 years. She was elated to get the call about a job at GM, after being out of work for several months.

The training “feels like I’ve been getting college for free,” she said. “Everything that they’re teaching us, it’s unbelievable, the knowledge that we’re learning here. They’re making it so simple for us that I already feel confident enough, just in a couple of days, that I’ll be able to do my job properly.”

Coggins said veteran GM workers are embracing the new hires, seeing them as contributing to the plant’s future.

If the new workers feel overwhelmed by all of the training they receive in a relatively short span, Coggins tries to put them at ease.

“We’re planting the seeds here, and you’ve got to start the growth process,” he said. “And then every day you’re out on the floor, it’s going to get better and better and better.”

email: mglynn@buffnews.com