SolarCity aims to create 1,460 jobs - The Buffalo News
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SolarCity aims to create 1,460 jobs

When SolarCity starts hiring later this year, the company expects to have six applicants for every job.

And it anticipates creating 1,460 jobs.

As the huge, 1.2 million-square-foot SolarCity factory rises along the Buffalo River, the next stage – filling the factory with workers – promises to set off the biggest Buffalo hiring spree in decades. Most of the hiring won’t take place until next year, said Daniel Harvey, who is leading the company’s hiring efforts in Buffalo, but the company will start filling the first 100 to 200 jobs this fall.

Already, local colleges are ramping up training programs and the company is working with state officials on plans for job fairs and other recruitment sessions. Some of the new employees, especially higher-skilled engineers, may be recruited from Silicon Valley, giving Buffalo an injection of new blood and brainpower. But for most of the new jobs, SolarCity executives and local economists believe the Buffalo Niagara region has plenty of candidates to fill the positions – for now.

In time, some say, SolarCity’s hiring binge – along with nearly the same number of jobs created by SolarCity suppliers – could give Buffalo a problem it hasn’t had in decades: a worker shortage.

“We’re very confident ... that we’ll be able to very easily fill our plant and make us a legacy employer that Buffalo really needs,” Harvey said.

He added: “We’ve got such a great depth and variety in our workforce, we think it’s going to be very, very easy to make some good transferable skills.”

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For now, SolarCity’s Buffalo workforce is just five human resources and staff workers. This fall, Harvey said, SolarCity will likely hire the first 100 to 200 employees for the plant, largely higher-level engineering and plant management jobs. Those jobs are likely to be filled by workers recruited by SolarCity from across the country.

Late this year or in early 2016, hiring will ramp up for the plant’s 1,000 or so production jobs. Hiring will continue as SolarCity begins – and gradually increases – production at the Buffalo plant during the course of next year. The company expects to need between 300 and 400 workers for each shift at a plant that will operate around the clock.

The jobs are expected to have varying educational requirements. About 400 of the jobs are expected to require four-year college degrees or higher, especially in the engineering field. But about 70 percent of the jobs, especially for the plant’s technicians and operators, are expected to require a two-year degree or a high school diploma or the equivalent, with a focus on good math and statistical analysis skills, Harvey said.

Workers who already have experience in advanced manufacturing likely could make the transition to solar panel production with in-house training, said Harvey, who believes the region’s long history of factory work – with a focus in recent years on advanced production methods – should make the transition to the solar industry easier.

“They understand statistical analysis. They understand what it takes to be on the shop floor, with the safety and the quality,” he said.

Above-average wages

Interest in the SolarCity jobs is expected to be high because the jobs will pay above average wages – from $45,000 a year for manufacturing jobs, to more than $100,000 for higher-skilled engineering and science jobs, according to Alain E. Kaloyeros, CEO at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Albany and one of the key players behind Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic-development push in the Buffalo Niagara region. That would put the starting pay of SolarCity’s jobs slightly above the $43,820 that the average job in Western New York pays, according to federal labor data.

With a pool of nearly 30,000 unemployed workers in the region, there’s no shortage of potential applicants, according to state Labor Department data. Across the Northeast, there are about 1.6 unemployed people vying for every opening, and SolarCity’s projection indicates that they expect the competition of its job to be especially intense.

The SolarCity plant, with its staff and stable of suppliers expected to bring a total of 2,900 jobs to the region, will put a significant dent in the pool of jobless workers. But it likely won’t create an immediate shortage, because the region still has about 5,000 more unemployed people than it did before the recession hit in 2008. Anticipated hiring at other Buffalo Billion ventures, including an expansion by IBM projected to add 500 jobs, coupled with growth at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, could push unemployment down even more.

Eventually, that could create another challenge for the region. As hiring ramps up at SolarCity and other local businesses – hiring during May was the strongest in 15 years – simply finding enough people to fill the jobs that will be opening up could become more difficult for local companies, said Gary Keith, M&T Bank’s regional economist in Buffalo.

“We’re growing our economic base here,” Keith said. “The problem is that we have a population that is basically flat.”

While that’s not a problem now – unemployment last month was 5.3 percent, a full percentage point above its pre-recession low of 4.3 percent – it could become one within a few years as hiring accelerates at SolarCity, its suppliers and other initiatives receiving taxpayer subsidies under the Buffalo Billion.

The solution, Keith said, means either bringing more local workers into the labor pool by convincing them that good jobs are available, or else getting people to move here because of the good-paying jobs that are available.

Training needs

But not all of the workers SolarCity hires are likely to have advanced manufacturing experience.

“The question is, how do we train all of these people,” said Richard C. Washousky, Erie Community College’s executive vice president.

ECC is launching a one-semester certificate program this fall in the semiconductor manufacturing technology, which mirrors the techniques used to produce solar panels. “We’re trying to give people an introduction to what goes into making a photovoltaic panel,” said Anthony Dalessio, the chairman of ECC’s electrical engineering technology department.

“It’s an opportunity for someone to test the nanotechnology waters and see if it’s something that interests them,” Washousky said. If it is, it could lead to enrollment in a one-year certificate program in semiconductor manufacturing that ECC is seeking state approval to offer, or as a springboard to an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree.

ECC President Jack Quinn met with SolarCity executives in California last month, and a team of ECC officials is expected to hold further discussions about the shape of the training programs in additional meetings next month at the company’s California headquarters and research center.

“We’re trying to be ready with the one-semester certificate program, followed by the one-year program,” Quinn said.

“The whole idea is to create this pipeline,” Quinn said. “These are good-paying jobs with good futures and good benefits.”

A regional approach

But the sheer volume of the hiring that SolarCity expects to do extends far beyond the scope of the ECC programs, which are expected to handle about 30 students in the one-semester certificate program. About 35 people have enrolled in the two-year associate degree program in nanotechnology.

Harvey said SolarCity expects to tap into resources at the University at Buffalo, as well as at the University at Albany, SUNY Polytechnic and other upstate colleges and universities for jobs requiring more-advanced degrees. He also expects to work in tandem with officials from ECC, along with the region’s other community colleges, to help develop programs that can train workers in the skills that SolarCity requires.

“We’re still doing that assessment to make sure we do it right,” Harvey said. “We’ll be hoping to use some on-the-job training, and using the Rochester Institute of Technology, Penn State, UB, ECC with their nano program, to then build those processes and then bring them all home.”

Richard Deitz, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s office in Buffalo, thinks that’s the right kind of approach.

“The things that employers are looking for need to be tied much more closely to the types of programs these schools have,” he said, adding, “I really think the community colleges are especially important. Gaining skill is more important than ever.”

Selling Buffalo

Harvey’s job also involves some convincing, especially when it comes to recruiting engineers and other higher-skilled workers from Silicon Valley and other parts of the country to move to Buffalo to work at SolarCity’s new factory.

He thinks the region’s more affordable housing and quality of life will be big selling points.

“I’ve been in the Silicon Valley talking with a few of the engineers out there,” he said. “When you price in the quality of living ... When you’re talking about a median home price of $130,000. And while we think our taxes are high here, when you go out to California, that defines high taxes.”

“It’s going to sell itself,” Harvey said. “For the right candidate, we’re going to use the region’s resources to show them why it is that we always come back to Buffalo.”

email: drobinson@buffnews.com

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