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City Pages

The opening of the Caterpillar manufacturing plant means one thing to Athens resident Shakema Harris: opportunity. Harris, who was laid off recently from her job at Southwire outside of Atlanta, is now searching for a job in the Athens area and says her skills on the assembly line at the wire manufacturer could be applied to a job assembling heavy equipment for Caterpillar. “So, I hope I qualify for something,” said the 35-year-old, while scouring computers for jobs at the Georgia Department of Labor office in Athens.

Caterpillar’s arrival has put in motion plans for new classes at Athens Technical College and the Clarke County School District’s Athens Community Career Academy. But for unemployed residents like Harris, who aren’t enrolled in school but have some manufacturing experience, finding a position at Caterpillar will come down to timing and competition.

According to Caterpillar, hiring for production positions won’t start until early 2013, continuing through 2015 as the plant on the Clarke-Oconee line is completed. Eventually, the plant will make small track-type tractors that will be sold around the world, along with final assembly for mini-hydraulic excavators for North and South America and bases for mini-excavators that will be exported to a factory in Europe for final assembly. According to Bridget Young, media relations representative for Caterpillar, the facility will include heavy fabrications, paint, logistics and assembly operations, as well as an on-site distribution center.

When construction is complete and the factory is up and running, Young said it will employ more than 1,400 and be Caterpillar’s largest and most complex facility.

Right now, jobs are posted on Caterpillar’s recruiting website. New classes set to debut in the fall at Clarke County high schools and Athens Tech will help students get training that could lead to Caterpillar jobs.

At the Career Academy, a partnership with Athens Tech is underway to identify specific skills that could open doors at Caterpillar down the road. “Athens Technical College is working on developing a training program, and we will partner on that through the Athens Community Career Academy,” said school district spokeswoman Anisa Sullivan Jimenez. “Welding has been identified as an area in which training will be offered, and Athens Tech is working with Caterpillar to determine other areas.”

She added that the Career Academy governance board has dedicated $100,000 to start training programs for Caterpillar. At Athens Tech, a building across the street from the main campus will house specialized training for Caterpillar led by Georgia Quick Start, a program sponsored by the state’s technical college system to provide training for companies coming to Georgia.

“Georgia Quick Start will be doing all their training there for the next 10 years,” said Flora Tydings, president of Athens Tech. “Hopefully, we’ll be putting more people into the pipeline, so hopefully, we will have enough people with the skill set and who will be able to do the Quick Start program.” She added that the college will be hiring additional staff to teach areas such as machine tooling, welding, industrial systems, distribution and materials management and engineering.

But students at the Career Academy and Athens Tech who choose a Caterpillar-themed program of study aren’t guaranteed a job at the manufacturer. Their resumes will be in the same pile as other locals with on-the-job experience in manufacturing and other industries, all competing for the jobs. And even after Caterpillar makes the hires, the new employees will get specific training from the Georgia Quick Start program before moving on to training at the plant.

“In conjunction with Georgia Quick Start, they will take individuals who already possess these skills, and take them for their own training,” said Tydings.

Young said Caterpillar is already working with Georgia Quick Start to come up with a training program. She said the company plans to “develop a customized workforce training program to ensure we have the highest-quality workforce possible… We will provide job-specific training for all positions, including welding, assembly, fabrications, logistics and paint.”

State Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said the Labor Department is working with Caterpillar’s human resources to help recruit and screen potential applicants. “In the near future, we expect more widespread recruitment needs from Caterpillar, and their human resource officials have told us our services will be very much needed at this point,” said Butler. “One of the [Department of Labor’s] specialties is helping companies sift through large numbers of applicants to provide the best possible workers for open positions.”

At the moment, because all the hiring is going directly through Caterpillar, visitors to the Department of Labor will simply find links to the manufacturer’s website. But even so, that’s something Athens resident Antonio Hitchcock, 26, can find when he’s at the Department of Labor’s office, looking for warehouse jobs.

The unemployment rate for the Athens metropolitan area, which includes Madison, Oconee and Oglethorpe counties, hit 7.1 percent in January, the lowest of any metro area in the state. But, while Hitchcock said he’s finding job openings in the area outside Clarke County, his lack of transportation keeps him looking only inside the city limits. Having Caterpillar come in will help address that problem. “It’s something local,” he said.