225 new jobs, solar panels come to Freightliner plant

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 22, 2011

By Emily Ford
CLEVELAND — New jobs are coming to Freightliner in Cleveland, and officials have discussed adding a second shift at the truck manufacturing plant, an executive said Thursday.
Daimler Trucks North America, parent company of Freightliner, plans to add 225 jobs by June, said Roger Nielsen, Daimler’s chief operating officer.
The jobs will go to recalled laid-off workers. Officials are considering adding a second shift, Nielsen said. And if market conditions continue to improve, Freightliner employees will have the opportunity to work overtime by this summer, he said.
“There is a strong customer need for trucks,” Nielsen said.
He was in town to promote the solar farm Duke Energy has installed in Freightliner’s front yard. The 1,560 solar panels generate 359 kilowatts of energy — enough electricity to power 38 homes — and help Duke Energy meet new requirements for renewable energy.
Layoffs in 2007 and 2008 decimated the workforce at Freightliner, which once employed 4,000 people and manufactured 220 trucks per day.
Employment fell to 695 workers, and production bottomed out at 32 trucks per day. Rowan County and the town of Cleveland gave Freightliner economic incentives in 2009 to protect the remaining jobs and begin production of military vehicles.
Plant Manager Mike McCurry said the plant is on track to hit 87 trucks daily by August, with 1,100 current employees now turning out 68 trucks per day. The 225 recalled jobs will include truck assemblers and skilled tradesmen.
The company’s market share, now about 40 percent, is growing, Nielsen said. Bringing on a second shift “would really depend on a lot of factors,” he said.
“We are talking about, at some point, adding a second shift,” he said. “We are in preparations.”
Economic indicators for the trucking industry are “absolutely favorable,” Nielsen said, although the company is keeping a close eye on gas prices.
So far, the rising cost of driving a truck hasn’t hampered Daimler’s expansion plans. Even at $5 per gallon in 2008, fuel prices didn’t affect production, Nielsen said.
“But it is a factor for consumers,” he said. “It’s still a great concern.”
Duke Energy signed a 25-year lease for the solar panels in Freightliner’s front yard.
Nielsen and others commemorated the partnership with a Switch On ceremony. The panels have been collecting energy from the sun since December.
Duke has invested $50 million so far in 18 solar sites across the state on the ground and rooftops, said Tony Almeida, a Duke Energy vice president who lives in Rowan County.
Daimler is one of the energy company’s best customers in the region, with a seven-digit annual power bill. The company is a technology leader and wants to be the first to put an emissions-free truck on the road, Nielsen said.
The solar site helps as the company works to lessen its impact on the environment and meet key performance indicators, he said.
“This solar project is one big step toward us getting an A+ in this class,” Nielsen told Cleveland Elementary School students in the audience.
The Cleveland plant is one of Duke’s distributed generation solar energy sites. The Daimler facility in High Point, headquarters of Thomas Built Buses, is home to another 1,690 solar panels projected to power an additional 41 homes annually.
The power generated by the panels goes back into the community to help Duke Energy meet its residential renewable energy commitment.
The renewable energy standard for North Carolina requires each public electric utility to meet at least 12.5 percent of its North Carolina retail customers’ electricity needs through new renewable energy sources or energy efficiency measures by 2021.
The panels are hard to miss for motorists on N.C. 70.
“We are fueling the imagination of every person who drives by these solar arrays,” said Sandra Carter, Daimler’s environmental manager.
The high visibility of the panels brings greater awareness of renewable energy to the community and could inspire people to dream up new ways to meet energy needs, Carter said.
Cleveland Mayor John Steele lauded the 22-year partnership between the town and Freightliner, even delivering part of his remarks in German. Daimler is based in Germany.
Freightliner products
The Freightliner plant manufactures six different trucks in Cleveland:
• Two models of Cascadia sold in North America
• Coronado, a model with right-hand drive exported to Australia and New Zealand
• An armored military truck
• Columbia, a mostly right-hand-drive export
• Argosy, a cab-over design with no hood and right-hand drive
Student contest winners
Freightliner plant employees worked with Cleveland Elementary School to develop an educational program about renewable energy.
Employees put on five assemblies at the school for 300 students, and the company provided a science kit to each grade.
Student winners of a renewable energy art and essay contest are:
Kindergarten Anna Parrish and Mason Lee
1st grade Tatiana Landaverde and Brianna Hennessy
2nd grade Luke Koppe and Amoni Bryant
3rd grade Jessie Cline and Maryfer Maldonado
4th grade Sage Staley and Jake Harkey
5th grade Luke Waggoner and Guadelupe Melchor
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.