The odds of Eric Gilkey landing a job at Nissan's sprawling new assembly plant are a slim 1 in 15.

That's no knock against the state employee. It's just that Gilkey, 36, must compete with the 61,000 others who have applied for 4,000 positions the plant must fill by the end of the year.

Nissan North America will open the first phase of its $1.5 billion assembly plant in May. The plant will make Nissan's new Titan pickup, Quest minivans and new Nissan and Infiniti sport-utility vehicles.

The facility will be Mississippi's first auto plant, and excitement is high among applicants angling for jobs with starting wages between $13.25 and $18.50 an hour.

The average salary of all private-sector jobs in Mississippi was $26,066 in 2001. At the Nissan plant, a worker getting $13.25 an hour would be drawing $27,560 a year.

The plant also is a boon after last year's record losses of manufacturers; 103 closed their doors, taking 10,238 jobs with them.

"I want to be a part of Nissan and be a part of building the cars from the ground up," Gilkey said.

But Nissan is being very choosy. The company prefers assembly line workers to have 18 months of factory or industrial experience, and maintenance technicians to have three to five years of industrial experience.

"We can be very selective because of our pay and benefits," said Galen Medlin, the plant's personnel director. "Most of the people we hired are coming from another job or have been recently been laid off, so we're able to get some of the better folks in."

The state, as part of a $695 million incentive package for Nissan, is paying $23.5 million for its worker training.

But while Nissan offers sorely needed manufacturing jobs, it's also taking some of the best employees from other manufacturers who then have to train new workers and raise wages to compete with the Japanese automaker.

That's why the Mississippi Manufacturers Association wants the legislature to ensure there's money in its education bills for work force training that other manufacturers in the state can tap. "We want to move smoothly through this transition process so that Nissan comes out a winner and existing manufacturers come out winners," said Jay Moon, the association's president.

In three months, Nissan North America will open the first automobile assembly plant in Mississippi. About 61,000 people have applied for 4,000 openings for which base pay is more than the average salary in the state two years ago.