DETROIT, SEPT. 1 -- General Motors Corp.'s new president hinted today that the giant auto maker may need to pay workers at its component operations less than those at its assembly plants.

"It's one of the things we have to have," said Robert C. Stempel as he met with reporters on his first day as the No. 2 executive at the top U.S. auto maker. "We need to look at that contract, and what maybe works in assembly plants ... might be a little different in a different kind of operation."

Stempel, 53, was named last May 22 by GM Chairman Roger B. Smith to replace F. James McDonald, who retired Monday after being GM's president since early 1981.

He formerly was executive vice president in charge of GM's truck & bus group and overseas operations since early 1986, and is now on GM's board of directors.

"GM is a much different corporation than virtually any other auto maker," Stempel said. "If we're going to be competitive, the kind of general contracts may not apply in some of those areas where we have new competitors in the supply industry."

Stempel said the current labor contract talks between GM and the United Auto Workers union "will have to keep up their pace" despite Ford Motor Co. being named as the strike target Monday.

"I hope we can continue very active negotiations at our bargaining table," he said, although top UAW officials said the GM talks would slow considerably.

The shrinking of the auto maker's work force has made job security the UAW's top priority in the current talks. GM has already announced that several parts facilities will be closed or sold within the next few years.

It also announced last fall it would eliminate about 35,000 jobs by closing up to a dozen old facilities by 1989.

While the new GM president declined to be more specific about which operations may be closed or if any further component operations would be identified for closing, he said most of the restructuring would be done within the next 18 months.

"We don't have the luxury of waiting." he said. "There is sense of urgency out there. Our job is being competitive, and if I can get those component divisions to really earn their way, there's no question about their being here or job security.

Stempel said that while some of GM's parts-making operations are "absolutely first class," the auto maker has other businesses that have changed and are not competitive. "Those are the ones that we'll have to consolidate and perhaps eliminate."

However, Stempel said that "one of the last things on my agenda is to close anything.

"One of the first things on my agenda is to find out how can we make {those plants and operations} competitive and how can we do it. My objective is to get competitive, not to outsource and close."

However, he said GM faces an overcapacity problem going into the next decade -- which means the carmaker may have to trim its operations on reduced demand alone, even if it can build parts competitively.