GE a shadow of its former self in Schenectady, where it was born 135 years ago

General Electric commuters walk along the Erie Canal in downtown Schenectady in the early 1900s in this photo from the collection of the Efner History Center.

General Electric commuters walk along the Erie Canal in downtown Schenectady in the early 1900s in this photo from the collection of the Efner History Center.

SCHENECTADY — General Electric’s history in Schenectady dates back to 1886 when inventor Thomas Edison set up the Edison Machine Works here.

After General Electric itself was formed through an 1892 merger, Schenectady grew into a company town, The Electric City, or sometimes “The City That Lights and Hauls the World,” when another industrial giant, the American Locomotive Company, was still in operation.

The Alco plant at one end of Erie Boulevard was torn down in 2011 after rotting for a generation and has been replaced by the Mohawk Harbor mixed-use development.

At the other end of Erie Boulevard, the sprawling GE campus where 45,000 people once worked now hosts perhaps 3,000 employees, perhaps fewer. The company won’t say.

It is still the largest among the 22 or so GE facilities in New York, but all told, only 4,890 people worked at those sites in December 2020.

For generations, the identity and economy of Schenectady was tied to the company. 

About 30,000 people worked on the sprawling Schenectady/Rotterdam campus at the start of the Great Depression and about 32,000 in 1950, after the all-out effort for World War II swelled the workforce to 45,000.

Fathers and then sons and then grandsons worked there for generations; dividends and appreciation on company stock grew generational wealth; employee volunteerism and corporate philanthropy made the community a better place; downtown swarmed with shoppers.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, employment levels varied in the mid-20,000s. 

When a hard-charging young executive named Jack Welch took over as General Electric CEO in 1981, there were 24,000 people working for GE in Schenectady.

When he retired in 2001, the company’s stock had exploded, boosting company value from $14 billion to $410 billion, and Welch had gained legendary status as the “Manager of the Century.”

And GE’s Schenectady workforce was down to 6,700.

Meanwhile, Schenectady was at a low point, with a crumbling, deserted downtown, timeworn residential neighborhoods and a population that had plunged by half.

To be sure, there were larger societal factors at play: a painful transition to a post-industrial economy, residents abandoning cities for suburbs, deferral of expensive maintenance on public and private infrastructure, the erosion of independent businesses, especially in downtowns.

But General Electric’s shrinkage was a contributing factor.

The company followed the same pattern in other old industrial towns where its factories were once the lifeblood and identity of the community. It shrank, closed or sold off operations in Waterford, Niskayuna, Fort Edward, Selkirk, Pittsfield, Utica and others farther afield.

The shrinkage continued after Welch departed, either to maximize profit or minimize expenses as the company’s stock shrank to a fraction of its value in the Welch era. GE has become reticent about quantifying its workforce in Schenectady, where the company was born, where it maintained its headquarters for decades, and where — until recently — the GE Power business was based.

In 2017 it said about 2,000 people worked at the headquarters of GE Global Research in Niskayuna.

In 2018 it said about 4,000 people worked at the Schenectady campus.

In 2019 it said more than 4,000 people combined worked for GE in Schenectady, Niskayuna and the rest of the Capital Region.

In 2020, it said it had 4,890 employees across the entire state of New York.

In 2021, the union that represents hourly production workers in Schenectady — the men and women who build the giant turbines and generators that still help light the world — says it is down to just 800 members, and only 600 of those work for GE in Schenectady.

However, the company on Tuesday was advertising nearly 200 openings between Schenectady and Niskayuna on its online employment portal.

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