A job fair expected to attract 1,500 people to Ogeechee Technical College Wednesday, had already processed that many applicants by noon. By 6 p.m., 3,500 people had filled out employment applications to be part of Great Dane’s initial workforce when its 450,000-square-foot manufacturing plant opens in Statesboro early next year.
“I didn’t expect this many people, obviously,” said Kevin Black, the plant’s manager. “It’s nice to have this many people interested in working with us. On the other hand, it is a little depressing to see there are that many people that need a job. I certainly wish we had something for everyone in the line.”
Lines began forming in front of Ogeechee Tech’s main entrance about 4 a.m. for the job fair scheduled to start at 9 a.m. Doors opened a little early and by 10 a.m. about 2,000 people were waiting in a line that stretched nearly a half-mile from the entrance.
“Out of all the job fairs I’ve been associated with, and I do job fairs all over the state, this is probably the largest attendance-wise for one company,” said Mel Wages, job fair coordinator for the Georgia Department of Labor. “The normal job fair will have several companies and this is just one company.”
Great Dane Trailers manufactures dry van, refrigerated and platform trailers. In its first phase, the Statesboro plant inside Gateway Industrial Park will have the capacity to produce more than 5,000 trailers annually. It is set to begin production in April 2012.
The plant plans to hire 400 people, mostly local, but Black said employment won’t reach that number for several months.
“You always want interest in your company and you always want to build a good employee base,” he said. “Having a few thousand (potential) employees to select from is the best situation for our company.”
While he didn’t expect such a massive crowd, Wages said he knows why people came out.
“This is a great company, Great Dane, with great benefits, great pay,” he said. “Anytime you have a job fair like this with 400 possible job openings, you’re always going to get a great turnout like this.”
Gilbert Thompson traveled from Ludowici to fill out an application and the wait in line, he said, was well worth it.
“I drove 60 miles,” he said. “I left the house at 6:45 and got here at 7:45, and I’ve never seen a crowd like this before. I’ve been out of work for three years myself. I can’t find anything. This is the first company accepting applications in the last year.”
Thompson said he worked for Great Dane previously in assembly and lining, and he hoped to work for the company again in a similar position.
Black said the plant was hiring “trailer builders/assemblers, painters, welders, trailer movers, forklift operators. Just to name a few.”
Black said he was surprised by the cross section of applicants at the fair.
“You have people out there ranging from hourly employees with no experience to people out there who have probably lost jobs after working with a company for 20 to 30 years that are trying to start a new career and hopefully we can help make that happen,” he said.
Molly Browning said she arrived at 8:30 a.m. from Brooklet.
“I just moved back from Atlanta, got laid off and I’m back looking for work,” she said. “I know Great Dane is a great company to work for. I know a lot of people who work and use to work for Great Dane. I’m glad they’re here in Statesboro.”
Once through the line, people were handed official application forms and sat in the lobby of Ogeechee Tech’s administration building. About 225 at a time then went into the Joe Kennedy auditorium where Black gave for a 20-minute orientation session about Great Dane. After the session, people were taken to several different OTC classrooms, completed their applications and handed them to Department of Labor representatives.
At the orientation session, Black emphasized the importance he places on hiring the plant’s first group of employees.
“We need to select a workforce that we can depend on to become the legacy for Great Dane in Statesboro for years to come,” he said. “The people we bring in here to start this plant will be the people that dictate what the perception of Great Dane is. (They will set the tone for) how we operate and function for years to come. It is very hard to change a work climate once it gets started.”
Following Wednesday’s fair, the Department of Labor and Great Dane representatives will review applications and begin interviews. Anyone who didn’t attend the fair can contact the Statesboro Career Center at (912) 681-5156 for information about how to apply.
“I expect we will aggressively start the interview process by the middle of next week,” Black said. “Some people may not get a call (for a job) next week or in two to three weeks. But they may get a call in six months depending where they are in the process and how quickly we can ramp up (operations at the plant).”
Brandon Bell, a student at Ogeechee Tech from Savannah who now lives in Statesboro, summed up why so many people came out.
“Hopefully I can make a career with Great Dane,” he said. “The economy is so messed up, I need employment for myself right now.”
James Healy can be reached at (912) 489-9402.