Bell Helicopter, which opened an assembly plant in Lafayette in August, so far has hired 27 of the planned 115 employees who one day will produce 200 new helicopters annually, company officials said.
Paul Watts, general manager of the Lafayette facility, said the company expects to increase hiring and begin delivery of the Bell 505 Jet Ranger X later this year after the new model helicopter is approved by government officials in the U.S. and Canada.
The company won’t reach full employment and full-throttle production until late 2017, Watts said. Flight tests of the new model are ongoing in Canada now, he said.
Though the facility won’t be fully staffed until next year, Bell hiring officials are continuing to review résumés, said Krystal Holder, who works in human resources.
Bell Helicopter brass and Louisiana officials in August cut the ribbon on the assembly plant, located on Lafayette Regional Airport grounds. The facility, officially titled the Bell Helicopter Lafayette Assembly Center, also has a huge display window facing U.S. 90, which will show off its Jet Rangers like new cars in a Mercedes-Benz dealership’s showroom. Retailing for just over $1 million, the company has more than 350 letters of intent to buy the Jet Ranger from customers around the world, according to Watts.
The state of Louisiana contributed $23.6 million to build the assembly center. The facility is now owned by the Lafayette Airport Commission. Louisiana also granted tax breaks for out-of-state buyers. Bell, in turn, agreed to spend $11.4 million for equipment and tools.
Holder said that when Bell reaches the 115 hiring level, the assembly line employees will work Monday through Thursday, 10 hours a day. The 10-hour workday is the most efficient way to produce 200 Jet Rangers a year, Watts and Holder said.
When former Gov. Bobby Jindal and other officials announced in December 2013 that Bell would locate the Jet Ranger plant in Lafayette, it was during a period of almost full employment in Acadiana due mainly to a bustling energy sector.
Oil has since taken a dive in price, and thousands across the region have lost jobs. Some of those who have been laid off are expected to be hired at Bell.
Holder said one of the employees hired last week came from the energy sector.
Watts said the energy downturn should not affect demand for the Jet Ranger.
“Due to its affordable price point and versatile capabilities, the Bell 505 is attractive to a variety of global buyers and is impervious to the downturn in the oil and gas segment,” Watts said. “Interest and commitments to purchase have been consistent since the launch, resulting in a steady backlog of work a the new facility in Lafayette.”
Watts said Bell’s growing presence in Louisiana — the company has two other facilities in Lafayette Parish — should help diversify the job market.
Holder said the company will hire managers, aircraft assemblers, flight technicians, customization technicians, painters, warehouse workers and inspectors.
Bell is using Louisiana Economic Development’s FastStart program to train prospects who don’t have any aviation experience but who are mechanically inclined.
Holder said annual pay for the jobs will average $55,000 a year.
To learn more about the jobs, log onto belllafayete.com.
Follow Billy Gunn on Twitter, @BillyGunnAcad.
Editor’s note: This article was changed on March 31, 2016, to note that the new helicopter is priced at just over $1 million, that delivery of the first ones to customers are expected later this year and that state-approved tax breaks were enacted for out-of-state buyers.