GE plant manager Kevin Sharkey reluctantly donned a blue sweater on Friday.
He had been informed on Thursday night that he, not General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt, would be giving the president a tour of the steam turbine and generator manufacturing facility.
He said he would wear a suit but officials from the White House told him he couldn’t. It didn’t matter that President Barack Obama would be wearing a suit and tie, nor that his boss would be walking next to him in equally businesslike clothes.
“The White House said not to wear a suit,” Sharkey said after Obama’s tour and speech. “They said, ‘No, we want you to wear your regular attire.’ ”
He cheated a little — his wife bought him a new sweater.
He’s never worn a suit to work — a tie could get sucked into a spinning lathe and strangle its wearer, and his blue-collar workers would laugh him out of the plant if he showed up in slacks and jacket, he said.
His men were even more informally dressed, wearing jeans and shirts on Sharkey’s orders. “I had to have a quick word with them about that,” he said.
The tour guide switch from Immelt to Sharkey came so suddenly that even advance press documents said Immelt would be giving the tour. But the presidential team sent to organize the event sent word that Sharkey was the better choice.
“The White House called and said, ‘We’d like Kevin to do it,’ ” Sharkey said. “It was surreal, it really was.”
So on Friday afternoon, he found himself greeting the president, one-on-one, and then doing almost all the talking as his boss walked alongside.
Obama let the press trail just three yards behind him as he toured the turbine manufacturing facility, Building 273. But the hum of generators in the echoing building drowned out everything he said, forcing reporters to simply watch and read signs that GE employees had helpfully set up around the plant.
Later, Sharkey said that one of the president’s first questions was about the smell of cleaning agents. “He was kind of teasing me a little bit, and said it smells a lot like wet paint,” Sharkey said. He had to confess that they did “spruce up a little” for the presidential visit.
Craftsmen at work
He talked up the steam turbines, pointing out the craftsmanship in the rippled metal that ends up in the center of the machines. “The skill of the guys you can’t see right away,” he said. “You never get to see the fancy stuff on the inside.”
Obama appeared to appreciate the work. As Sharkey described it, he reached out to touch the metalwork. According to a sign posted nearby, the D11 steam turbine can provide as much energy as 150 GE steam engines produced in 1911.
Sharkey didn’t bother to hide his pride in his workers.
“I told him there’s a Ferrari in there waiting to get out,” he said, referring to the quality of the workmanship.
Ten workers were chosen by lottery to stand near their workplaces and describe their jobs to the president. None of them could demonstrate their work because they had to keep the machines off for safety, machinist Jeff Van Buren of Latham said after the tour and speech. He was one of the lucky few — and he apparently made quite an impression on the president.
Obama referenced their conversation in his speech, though he didn’t mention Van Buren by name.
“I just had a chance to meet one of the guys here at the plant who had been trained at Hudson Valley,” Obama said. “Hudson Valley Community College created a program so students could earn a paycheck and have their tuition covered while training for jobs at this plant . . . And that’s an example of the kind of partnerships that we’ve got to duplicate all over the country.”
Van Buren said he didn’t tell Obama about his training. Immelt pointed him out.
Obama walked over at once.
“He came right up and introduced himself,” Van Buren said. “Jeff [Immelt] said, ‘This is one of the apprentice graduates.’ It felt fantastic.”
Van Buren assembles steam turbine blades, attaching them to the turbine rotor. He explained the work to Obama, who seemed to be listening closely, Van Buren said.
Then Obama gave him an advance briefing on his speech.
“He talked about selling American products made by Americans to the rest of the world,” Van Buren said. “It was just unreal. I was very lucky — maybe the most lucky. I don’t know if anything like this will ever happen again, but if it doesn’t I’ll die a happy man.”