General Motors worker logs 40 years at ever-expanding Arlington plant

In 40 Years, He’s Seen A Lot Of Changes At GM

James "Bubba" Humes works in the light repair shop at the General Motors plant in Arlington. A full-size SUV rolls off the line every 56 seconds.
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James "Bubba" Humes works in the light repair shop at the General Motors plant in Arlington. A full-size SUV rolls off the line every 56 seconds.

The light-repair shop at General Motors’ Arlington Assembly Plant is a place where workers are jacks of all trades.

They fix weather stripping. They touch up scratched paint. They tackle almost any imaginable problem not involving an automobile’s engine. And their job is especially important as GM, which is building vehicles at a record pace, strives to maintain quality in its products.

“Today, the quality is 100 times better than it was back then,” said James “Bubba” Humes, 58, referring to his early years at the plant.

Humes has worked at GM’s Arlington factory since 1975, before many of his colleagues were born. “When I was first hired,” he said, “they would just throw them [the cars] together.”

Today, the company is in the midst of $1.4 billion expansion in Arlington that will increase its ability to build cars in the coming years. It already cranks out an average of one full-size sport-utility vehicle every 56 seconds.

331,500 Cars built at GM’s Arlington plant last year — an average of one every 56 seconds, and an 18.4 percent increase from the year before.

The Arlington plant is widely considered by analysts to be the most profitable GM plant in the United States and, although company officials don’t break down profits model by model, they don’t dispute that distinction. The North Texas location is where all of GM’s full-size SUVs are manufactured, including Chevrolet Tahoes and Suburbans, GMC Yukons and Cadillac Escalades.

The plant built 331,500 vehicles in 2015 — a whopping 18.4 percent increase from the year before, GM spokeswoman Jennie Ecclestone said.

The company is investing the $1.4 billion in new tools, expanded indoor assembly space and other improvements over the next three years. The expansion is not necessarily to expand current production of Tahoes, Yukons and the like, but to meet the needs for whatever new models are built in the future, Ecclestone said.

By embarking upon the expansion now, GM can make changes to its assembly lines in preparation for future needs without interrupting the around-the-clock production of its popular full-size SUVs, she said.

The Arlington plant operates three shifts per day, six days a week, with more than 4,200 employees.

Today, the quality is 100 times better than it was back then.

James “Bubba” Humes, 58, comparing his job at GM now to when he started in the 1970s

Bubba’s work space

Of the 1,245 automobiles that roll off the line each day in Arlington, typically 40 to 50 vehicles — about 3 percent of the total — are found to have some sort of flaw. The defects are typically not severe enough to stop the assembly line but must be addressed before the car is put on a railroad car or 18-wheeler and sent off for sale at a dealership.

When an imperfection is found, those vehicles are pulled off the end of the assembly line and taken to light repair. Workers such as Humes, a team leader, are expected to fix whatever is wrong. Humes, who calls his job “error-proofing,” oversees two other employees.

Humes has logged nearly 41 years of full-time work with GM. He said he first arrived at GM’s Arlington facility two weeks after graduating from Dallas’ Thomas Jefferson High School in 1975.

Back then, a whole different class of automobiles was being made in Arlington, including Oldsmobile Cutlasses and Chevy El Caminos. Humes first worked at slotting seat belts into cars and “kicking” seat cushions into place. He also held many other jobs at the plant over the years.

But today, the emphasis is on paying attention to details, and fixing even the tiniest of imperfections, he said.

On the assembly line, any mistakes that could affect the safety features or electronics can cause alarms to go off. The assembly line can be shut down, giving workers time to shift into fix-it mode.

But when a smaller problem is noticed — perhaps a door panel that isn’t fitting quite right — the car is marked and allowed to continue down the assembly line. Once assembly is complete, the flawed vehicle is sent to light repair.

That’s when the man known as “Bubba” gets a crack at fixing the problem.

Humes said he could have retired 10 years ago but enjoys the benefits of a steady job. He lives 50 miles away in the Denton County community of Aubrey.

In his spare time, he often tinkers with his pride and joy, a ’56 Chevy truck, and he spends time with his 8-year-old granddaughter.

Humes has been married for 31 years and has a grown son who works in the information technology field and a grown daughter who works as a nurse/physician’s assistant.

“I like my lifestyle,” he said.

City under a roof

The facility at 2525 E. Abram St. is so big it feels like a city under one roof. And yet, it’s about to get quite a bit bigger.

GM purchased the former Cowboys nightclub on the south side of Abram Street and is building a parking lot with an overhead crosswalk so employees can get to and from work without worrying about traffic on the busy road.

The old GM parking lot on the north end of Abram, near the Texas 360 frontage road, meanwhile, will soon become home to a new extension of the assembly plant, Ecclestone said.

The expansion project is expected to continue through 2018.

More than 17.7 million new light vehicles will be purchased or leased this year, about a 2-percent increase from 2015, and setting back-to-back records.

Steven Szakaly, National Automobile Dealers Association chief economist

With all the expansion underway at GM and other automakers, observers are expecting yet another banner year for car sales.

Stoked by low gas prices and huge incentives from car dealers, prospective car buyers will be in the mood for new wheels, even the full-size SUVs, an economist said.

“More than 17.7 million new light vehicles will be purchased or leased this year, about a 2 percent increase from 2015, and setting back-to-back records,” said Steven Szakaly, National Automobile Dealers Association chief economist. “It will be the seventh consecutive year of auto sales growth.”

Szakaly added that customers can expect to benefit from many sales incentives, as car makers and car dealers seek to aggressively move their products.

And the growth isn’t just in the U.S. About 10 to 20 percent of the SUVs manufactured in Arlington end up being sold in other countries, Ecclestone said.

“We’re the only one in the world making these, and they’re popular not only here but in the Middle East and South America,” she said.

With such aggressive expansion efforts, big sales projections and its employees ratifying a new four-year labor contract late last year, GM’s 2009 bankruptcy is in the proverbial rear-view mirror.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson