G. Chambers Williams III, The Tennessean
SPRING HILL - Sherry Creps is glad to be back in Tennessee, helping to make engines at the General Motors plant where she was laid off in late 2009.
After more than a year on furlough, she accepted a transfer to a GM plant in Lordstown, Ohio, and was away from her home, husband and sons for eight months before getting a call to come back to the plant where she had been employed since 1990.
"I was given the opportunity to return to Spring Hill in May, and I jumped at the chance," she said. "It was like a weight was lifted off of me. My sons are now a year ahead in high school, and when I got back, my oldest son had even grown a beard."
Already, 188 workers have been hired at the plant to build the next-generation, four-cylinder engine for the redesigned 2013 Chevrolet Malibu. And most of them are former Spring Hill employees who had been forced to take jobs at other GM facilities from Michigan to Texas when the carmaker went through a massive restructuring during the recession.
The engine plant projects 450 workers as production ramps up.
On Wednesday, GM officially marked the start of production of the 2.5-liter Ecotec engine on the new, $460 million assembly line.
But that was "just an hors d'oeuvre" compared with what's still to come for Spring Hill, a top United Auto Workers union official said.
"The main course is coming later this year," said Mike Herron, shop chairman for UAW Local 1853 at the plant.
That's when GM will resume assembly of vehicles at Spring Hill, after a nearly two-year hiatus. The Chevrolet Equinox midsize crossover will be built on the restarted assembly line, adding about 700 jobs.
And 1,200 more workers will be needed sometime next year when GM begins assembling two new midsize vehicles, as yet unidentified, at the Tennessee plant. At its height, that plant once employed more than 7,000 in the production of GM's now-defunct Saturn line.
For now, those who've been given positions in the engine plant are glad to be home. About 2,000 were laid off when production of the Chevrolet Traverse large crossover was moved to Michigan in November 2009.
More people will be recalled to work as demand for the new four-cylinder engine increases, said Arvin Jones, GM's manufacturing manager .
"That lets 450 families get back together," said Doug Hise, who was laid off in late 2009 and was out of work 15 months before transferring to the GM plant in Arlington, Texas, leaving his wife and three children behind.
Don Sowers, a 27-year GM employee, also had spent the past eight months in Lordstown, Ohio, and before that in Arlington for seven months. His wife and high school-age son remained in Tennessee, and he got to see them only on occasional weekends.
"It was like a gut punch to get sent to Lordstown," he said.
How soon more jobs open on the engine line depends on demand for the redesigned Malibu sedan, which the company has just started shipping to dealerships. Several Middle Tennessee Chevy dealers on hand for Wednesday's event at the plant said they haven't received any of the vehicles yet.
"I've heard they're on the trucks," said Michael Creque, general manager of Chevrolet-Buick-Cadillac-GMC of Murfreesboro.