It was just four years ago that Trane laid off more than 200 at its Fort Smith facility, but production has returned and with it, so have many of the jobs lost in 2010.
According to plant manager Chris Farnsworth, the Fort Smith air conditioning factory secured a new labor contract in March of 2013 and with it, restored many of the positions lost in 2010, which at the time broke down to 197 hourly production workers and 15 salaried positions.
Trane previously employed as many as 500 as of late 2009.
"Things have really started rolling," he said. "Leading up to 2013, production was increasing. But with the new labor contract, that allowed us to bring a new line from Trenton, New Jersey, and increase the size of the labor line."
Farnsworth said Trane has also invested more than $800,000 in the Fort Smith facility while rearranging the facility to improve productivity.
"A portion of the big rearrangement efforts that we've been doing the last six or nine months has been actively clearing floor space. Right now with one clear exception, we have 65,000 square feet of clear space that was once full. That wasn't due to outsourcing (of production), that was due to taking the areas that were consuming space and using lean tools, compressing those areas, rearranging them, getting rid of waste and relocating them to other areas of the plant ..."
The open space will allow Fort Smith to possibly receive additional production lines, he said.
Regardless of whether Trane locates another production line to Fort Smith, Farnsworth said the company was looking to do additional hiring beyond the recalled employees who have returned to work.
"So currently, we've recalled everybody off the recall list. All the people we've laid off, we've attempted to return to work. Quite a few have accepted. Quite a few declined and have moved on to other jobs. But we're in a position where we're bringing on brand new hires," he said, adding that the company has brought on 29 new hires in the last month.
"Since March 2013, we've returned 100 people to work — either layoffs or new hires," Farnsworth added.
And even more positions are available for hire at Trane's Fort Smith manufacturing facility.
"We're actively looking for skilled trade people, maintenance and electricians. One is due to retirement, but a couple more are due to the new growth we've seen," he said. "We need more trade skills to keep up with the higher production volume."
The new labor contracts are structured to provide raises for individuals hired at the facility, Farnsworth said, with the senior-level employees who survived the layoffs making $18.90 per hour, while those recalled are starting somewhere between $12 and $13.80.
"The brand new hires start around $11.50 on a three year progression up to the mid-$13s. But with general wage increases along the way, they should be somewhere north of that. That would get them to $13.50 over three years and then be eligible for annual general wage increases, as negotiated (in the labor contract)."
Within the next couple of weeks following the latest round of hiring, Farnsworth said the facility should employ 230 hourly workers and 30 salaried, for a total of 260. The figure is just more than half the 2009 level of employment.
Asked to look at the future and how many more hourly workers Trane could add, Farnsworth said it was too difficult to pinpoint.
"I won't take a stab at a number, but I do believe with the productivity this facility has generate and the positive financial impact of the business, we'll continue to grow and be a presence in Fort Smith," he said, adding that any time a manufacturer is adding jobs it is a positive sign for future growth.
"This is great news for us and great news for the community."
The Fort Smith area manufacturing sector employed an estimated 18,400 in June, up from 18,200 in May, and unchanged compared to June 2013. The July metro numbers are scheduled to publish on Aug. 27.
Manufacturing employment is down almost 36% from a decade ago when June 2004 manufacturing employment in the metro area stood at 28,500. Also, the annual average monthly employment in manufacturing has fallen from 28,900 in 2005, 19,200 in 2012, and to 18,300 in 2013.