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The engine plant in the Town of Tonawanda is doing something it hasn't done in a long time -- preparing to hire new, permanent production workers.

General Motors Corp.'s Powertrain plant is collecting referrals from current workers, the first step toward bringing new employees onto the factory floor.

"If they decided to hire people, it would be the first in a long time," said Jerry McCormick, president of United Auto Workers Local 774. "It's always encouraging if there's a possibility of new jobs."

Like most GM locations, the factory has avoided hiring new workers by filling openings with transfers from other company sites. Since 1994, a wave of transfers from GM's former Saginaw Division -- now American Axle and Manufacturing Inc. -- has provided a ready pool of workers for the engine plant.

Company officials couldn't be reached for comment this week on the potential hiring plans.

GM Powertrain has said in the past that its new product, the L850 engine, will create 190 production jobs. However, the gains will be offset by improvements in efficiency, leaving total head count about the same, the company has said.

Throughout its operations, GM faces increasing vacancies on the production line as its aging unionized work force heads into retirement. Short-staffed plants working long hours has caused friction between the company and the UAW in recent months and led to strikes at several plants.

On the Niagara Frontier, the average work week in auto components factories was 46.2 hours in October, up from 44.6 hours in September, according to the state Labor Department. The auto sector employs about 14,000 people in the region.

GM's Delphi Harrison Thermal Systems in Lockport is hiring 400 workers this year, marking the first new hiring for the plant in 18 years. Under the referral system, current employees recommend others as candidates for factory jobs. Tests administered by an outside contractor determine who is selected, giving preference to former GM workers. At Delphi, most of the openings went to people who already had worked in the plant as temporary production workers.

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