SAN MATEO, Calif. – SolarCity is starting to build its Buffalo workforce. The solar energy systems installer, which is building a Buffalo factory that ultimately is expected to employ 1,460 people once it’s running at full capacity in 2017, has hired its first three local employees as it builds the system to hire a local workforce.
By the end of the year, SolarCity plans to have about 200 local workers hired, mostly for mid- to upper-level managers and engineers.
“A lot of that is what I would consider the engineering and mid-level management – the architects and specialists,” said Chris Beitel, the SolarCity executive who is overseeing the construction of the Buffalo factory.
Hiring for the plant’s production workers is likely to begin late this year, although SolarCity plans to add employees gradually as it outfits the new factory, works out the kinks in production and steadily builds its capacity, Beitel said in an interview at SolarCity’s headquarters in San Mateo, Calif.
The plant, which stretches for almost a third of a mile at the RiverBend complex on South Park Avenue, is expected to be in operation around the clock, seven days a week.
“We’ll focus on hiring 300 to 400 for shift number one,” Beitel said. “I’d say we’d start in November or December to have them on line in the middle of the first quarter, so that when the suppliers get through their equipment, we can start running a one-shift operation.”
That will be a watershed moment for one of the region’s biggest economic development projects in decades, and the centerpiece of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program. Under the initiative, the state is pumping $750 million into the SolarCity project to build the factory and purchase its equipment in an effort to turn the region into a center for solar panel manufacturing.
State officials said the arrangement offers some protection for taxpayers, since the building and equipment will be owned by New York State. SolarCity will rent the factory from the state for $1 a year, plus utilities, for a 10-year term.
“The state has been very supportive,” said Lyndon Rive, SolarCity’s CEO and co-founder.
If the company doesn’t meet its job-creation and investment targets during any of the 10 years covered by its agreement with the state, SolarCity is subject to a $41.2 million penalty during each of the years when it would have a shortfall.
The deal creates a structure that makes it essential that SolarCity build its own supplier and contractor base in Buffalo Niagara – something that state officials view as an essential step in creating the kind of critical mass needed to create a solar energy hub here that includes all of the expertise and resources needed by the solar energy industry. Under SolarCity’s deal with the state, the company is responsible for bringing 1,440 support and supplier jobs to the Buffalo Niagara region.
Having its suppliers and service providers nearby also should help SolarCity meet its aggressive goals to reduce the cost of its solar energy systems by reducing transportation costs and shipping times for its suppliers.
Hiring getting started
So far, the company has two human resources employees – part of a staff that ultimately is expected to include six people – working out of a co-working space near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
Daniel Harvey, a Western New Yorker who most recently headed human resources at Graham Corp. in Batavia, started this month as the head of SolarCity’s human resources in Buffalo, putting him in charge of the lofty task of building a 1,460-person workforce and training them in a period of roughly 18 months.
The company also is looking to hire an overall manager for the solar panel plant. Beitel said it’s likely that hire will involve someone from outside the Buffalo Niagara region, since SolarCity is looking for candidates with experience running big factories in the solar or semiconductor industries.
“We’re segueing into the hiring phase,” Beitel said. “That’s another huge activity, in parallel with the construction activity.”
For the plant’s nonproduction jobs, Beitel said the company plans to tap into the pool of graduates generated by local colleges and universities, as well as the State University of New York system across the state.
“We will be recruiting from SUNY campuses anyone that has device physics, PhDs, bachelor’s of science degrees,” Beitel said. “Part of the attractiveness of upstate New York ... is that there are a lot of semiconductor skill sets that have been added” through the growth of the computer chip industry in the Albany area.
SolarCity has been working with Kelly Navarro, a training and skills broker at the state Labor Department in Buffalo, to prepare for the hiring binge that will come later in the year.
To help train workers for the jobs that will be coming to SolarCity and other technology-oriented ventures in the Buffalo Niagara region, Erie Community College this fall is launching a new degree program in nanotechnology. The program would produce a trained workforce to take advantage of new opportunities at the RiverBend project and high-tech research and development positions at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
And while SolarCity hopes to work with ECC and other schools to give potential workers a taste of what the solar energy industry is all about, Beitel said the company expects to do most of the specific training for its new hires on its own.
“Can we create some training curricula with community colleges to help us find our production-related people? It’s really important that we get that foundation and get those things well baked and understood this summer so we can leverage the second half of the school year in the fall,” he said.
“There’s certainly a value to having the basics of solar taught,” Beitel said. “How’s a solar system work? What’s an inverter?” he said, referring to an electrical device that converts the power generated by a rooftop solar array from direct current to the alternating current that U.S. power networks use.
But SolarCity expects to do much of its worker training itself.
“A lot of the work we do with our production people is on-the-job training,” he said. “Most of the training we can do is on the job, but because of the size and the scale of what we’re doing, it might make sense to take that off-site … and put it in a community college or an off-site training center.”
“This equipment is complex. Maybe there’s a way to put test stands or replicates of equipment in certain locations to be able to have nondisruptive training, rather than have it happen of the production floor” Beitel said. “It’s really about the fundamentals of operating heavy machinery, complex machinery, understanding the basics of solar.”
Building and outfitting
Construction on the sprawling, 1.2-million-square-foot factory has been underway since September, when SolarCity completed its $350 million acquisition of fledgling solar panel manufacturer Silevo in a deal that gave the residential solar systems installer the ability to become its own supply of high-efficiency solar panels.
Since then, Beitel has built a staff in California of about 25 people working on the Buffalo plant, focusing on everything from corporate issues and the factory’s supply chain to logistics and project management work.
“It’s all about the strategic aspects, setting the blueprints, doing the architecture and understanding how the whole ecosystem is going to work,” Beitel said.
Crews are putting up the steel shell of the building, while other workers are pouring its foundation.
“The real goal is to get the superstructure up and be able to start outfitting the mechanical equipment, the electrical equipment and the plumbing into that central utility building, and then start to work on the runs into the production facility to where they connect with the equipment,” Beitel said.
SolarCity currently is working with the state to acquire the factory’s equipment. Under the terms of SolarCity’s deal with the state, New York is responsible for spending up to $400 million on equipment to outfit the factory. The state also is spending $350 million to build the factory.
“We’re already heavily engaged on the equipment piece, which the state is obviously helping us with,” Beitel said.
The initial focus on the equipment purchases has been on machinery that will take the longest time to acquire and install.
“We’ve closed several deals now, looking at the longest lead time equipment,” Beitel said. “The idea is, once the building shell is up, once the facility’s infrastructure – meaning the electricity, the gas, the water – are coming on, that’s when you want to start installing your longest start-up equipment set.”