Tracey Williams knows how to build things, just not stealth fighter jets like the F-35.
So the 50-year-old Seattle-area transplant, who has experience building armored personnel carriers and sea-worthy boats, understands why he must go through weeks of training before he starts on the assembly line at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth.
“The F-35 is a different animal. It is very specific and more difficult,” Williams said, standing in one of Lockheed’s new classrooms. “I’m like a kid in a candy store and I get to work on the most fantastic jet out there.”
Williams is among 435 production employees hired by Lockheed over the last six months as the company ramps up production of the F-35 Lightning II. The company plans to add about 1,800 employees by 2020 in Fort Worth, where it employs about 14,500 people, including 8,800 on the F-35 program.
This year, Lockheed will build 66 F-35s, but it plans to build as many as 160 a year by 2019.
Over the summer, Lockheed made preliminary job offers to more than 2,000 candidates at a series of job fairs in downtown Fort Worth. But only 40 percent of prospective employees for manufacturing positions make it through a rigorous screening process that includes aptitude and drug tests and a background check.
Competition for the assembly line jobs has been stiff, mainly because they pay well. Lockheed officials have said manufacturing workers could make as much as $75,000 a year, depending on their experience.
To make sure that the new employees have the technical skills necessary to build the futuristic fighter, Lockheed has converted about 45,000 square feet of space throughout its sprawling Fort Worth plant into classrooms and labs where new and existing employees receive hands-on, realistic training.
Instead of sitting at desks listening to lectures or following PowerPoints, workers get down and dirty, attaching real parts to actual sections of an airplane. Sometimes this requires reaching up over your head, or lying on your back while twirling a tool.
“That is how we will do it out on the floor,” said Charles Stuart, a top training program manager. He said studies show that workers will remember up to 80 percent of what they learn in this environment, compared to just 10 to 15 percent retention if workers are sitting at a desk.
“The goal is to improve the quality of the candidate,” Stuart said.
The first lab opened in April. Currently, Lockheed has 11 operating labs with plans for 14. Courses are being rolled out, with about 75 percent of the curriculum they’ve developed already in use. Course length varies from three to seven weeks, depending on the job and subject matter.
Since the $14 million program started in earnest, about 3 percent of employees who have entered training have “washed out,” Stuart said. Still, with those who survive, Lockheed already has seen a 6 percent improvement in quality since the program began.
“This is a revolutionary change for the company for the better,” Stuart said.
Devon Brown, a senior training manager, worked at Boeing for 27 years before joining Lockheed. Originally, there were nine instructors. Now he has 40, with 25 full-time teachers.
“A lot of manufacturers think it is a cost burden. Lockheed sees it as an investment. Do it right now, or pay later,” Brown said.
Gerardo Garcia liked the training he has received in a lab for applying finishes to the F-35’s exterior. A Lockheed employee since 2015, he previously worked in collision repair.
“There are a lot of tricks you can learn when you are trained” like this, Garcia said. “It makes your job quicker and easier.”
Lockheed is still hiring. It will hold another Fort Worth recruitment event Dec. 5 at the downtown Sheraton Hotel, with at least 1,000 people expected to vie for about 500 positions.
The event is aimed at hiring people to apply coating to the aircraft, but the company will be looking for other production disciplines as well. Lockheed will be issuing “letters of intent” to hire on the spot, pending successful completion of testing and screening.
Eddie Lynch, who has worked at Lockheed for 40 years, wishes they had had such a training program when he came to work at the plant. Lynch said he was “turned loose on the line with no training and no mentor.”
As a shop steward for the machinists union, he said the union and the company see “eye to eye” on the training program.
“I think they (the newly trained employees) are very good. They understand their tasks and how to do it and they ask questions,” Lynch said. “They have to be perfectionists when they build this airplane. It is the most sophisticated fighter jet in the free world.”