Obama visit puts GE's Gas Engines facility in spotlight

Todd Ponath
President Obama speaks during a visit to the Waukesha General Electric Gas Engines facility Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014.
Published on: 2/4/2014

Harland Altreuter has worked almost his entire adult life at the GE Gas Engines manufacturing plant. He's gone through a similar routine throughout his 40-year career inside the Waukesha facility.

As a machine operator, he followed this similar routine last week as he arrived to work at 6:30 a.m. in advance of his 7 a.m. shift on Jan. 30.

But it was anything but a regular day after that for Altreuter and almost the entire staff at the gas engines facility.

How could it be with the president of the United States about to take the stage inside Altreuter's workplace and shine the spotlight on GE?

For Altreuter, it was especially special given the fact that the Neosho (Dodge County) resident had a personal experience with Obama as he was chosen to give the 44th president a presentation of some of the equipment the manufacturing facility uses.

"It's quite an experience showing him around, showing him actually what you do on the line," Altreuter said. "It's pretty exciting."

Altreuter said while he was working at the facility the Saturday before Obama came to Waukesha, Secret Service were at the facility.

"The Secret Service wanted two people up on that end of the line," Altreuter said. "And they asked if I would give a presentation on how the machine actually operates and what it does. They wanted people that knew the line and how it worked."

Since Altreuter knew he would be working last Thursday morning, he was more than honored at the opportunity.

After arriving to work that day, he checked in with Secret Service and was taken to his post. The president arrived a couple hours later and before Obama told the country about General Electric's successful initiatives during his 25-minute speech, Altreuter chatted with him.

One item they discussed was the engine that is on display at the plant. It's noteworthy because it was recovered from one of the World Trade Center towers that collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001 in New York City.

The Waukesha facility made the two power engines that were in each of the twin towers.

"We call that one a survivor," Altreuter said. "We brought it back to the plant and we keep it here. It's not used for anything. It's actually a show piece."

Altreuter said the engines were for stand-by power, meaning that whenever the lights would have to go out in the towers the engines would start up immediately.

"They did when the twin towers (were struck) and they had auxiliary lights from these engines," Altreuter said.

While GE sells some of its engines inside the United States, Altreuter said most of what it manufactures is sold outside the country.

Obama came to the facility two days after he delivered his State of the Union address where boosting the economy with more specific job-training skills were focal points of his speech. He addressed this heavily in Waukesha as well as increasing minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and wage equality for women.

The president touted an improved economy, a thriving private sector and said manufacturing is adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s.

"I believe this can be a breakthrough year for America," Obama said. "After five years of hard work, digging ourselves out of the worst recession of our lifetimes, we are now better positioned in the 21st century than any other country on Earth.

"We've got all the ingredients we need to make sure that America thrives. And the question for folks in Washington is whether they're going to help or they're going to hinder that progress; whether they're going to waste time creating new crises that slow things down, or they're going to spend time creating new jobs and opportunity."

Obama, who also addressed the bitter cold in the area and joked about the tough endings to the Green Bay Packers and his hometown Bears' seasons, was upbeat about the rest of the year.

"I laid out some new steps that we can take right now to speed up economic growth and strengthen the middle class, and build ladders of opportunity into the middle class," Obama said. "Some of the ideas I presented I'm going to need Congress for. But America cannot stand still, and neither will I. So wherever I can take steps to expand opportunity, to help working families, that's what I'm going to do with or without Congress. I want to work with them, but I can't wait for them."

Former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle agreed with the president's message of training today's workforce and expanding apprenticeships by calling on American companies, particularly manufacturers, to set up more apprenticeship programs.

"To me, it was exactly right," Doyle said as he was walking out of the facility last week. "It was very practical, very direct, down-to-earth approach to things and one that I would guess if you took the politics out of it, 95 percent of America would agree with. So I really hope that as it moves forward is successful and people will benefit from."

Doyle was proud that Obama chose Waukesha as a stop along his post-State of the Union tour.

"GE is a fabulous part of this state," Doyle said. "From its medical equipment business, to its big engines, so it's a very important part of us."

Obama recognized how GE has grown and is prospering in training its employees.

"It's quite a difference from when I started 40 years ago," Altreuter said. "The building looks the same on the outside but the inside has changed considerably."

Obama saw this on his tour of the facility, which included a stop in Altreuter's department.

"He was really friendly, we got a White House photographer to take photos with him," Altreuter said. "We huddled together and he asked how many years have you been working here and he says 'oh you're the senior man here.' I said 'yeah I am the senior guy.'"