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SolarCity starts search for factory workforce

SolarCity is starting its search for production workers for the sprawling solar panel factory being built in South Buffalo.

In a move that has been awaited for months by people interested in working at SolarCity, the company is now prescreening applicants for the production jobs that will make up the bulk of the 1,460 positions that the solar energy systems installer has promised to create in Buffalo.

SolarCity wants to build a pool of candidates with suitable skills and experience, and then bring in its first factory workers early next year. Hiring will accelerate throughout 2016 as the plant nears full production in 2017.

“We want to have as many qualified people in our candidate pools ready to go,” said Daniel Harvey, the SolarCity executive in Buffalo responsible for building the local workforce.

The company now has 13 human resources and engineering employees in Buffalo. It expects to hire about 100 production workers by the end of March 2016, Harvey said. SolarCity’s workforce likely will top 500 people by the end of the 2016.

Entry-level positions will start at the low- to mid-$30,000 levels, with more skilled production workers earning at the mid-$60,000 level.

Workers in tooling engineering could be paid more than $100,000. “They’re just so hard to find,” Harvey said.

Interest in the jobs is expected to be intense. The company already has more than 200 applicants in the prescreening process, even though SolarCity has not actively promoted the job openings that have been posted by the state Labor Department.

“That’s with zero attention,” Harvey said. “We haven’t seen that really big of a push, and I think that’s because we’re telling people that we’re really not hiring today.”

Earlier this year, the Labor Department projected that SolarCity could see six applicants for each opening. Since then, the region’s unemployment rate has continued to drop as the pace of hiring this year has been twice as fast as it was in 2014. The local unemployment rate fell to 4.8 percent in October, the first time that joblessness in the Buffalo Niagara region has been below 5 percent since late 2007.

“The Buffalo market has been changing. We’ve been constantly monitoring that,” Harvey said. “It is getting tighter in the Buffalo market, so those numbers are probably adjusting.”

As more local residents find work, companies such as SolarCity that are planning to bring additional jobs to the region are facing a tighter employment market than they did just a few months earlier. If unemployment remains low, SolarCity and other companies that need to hire may need to entice discouraged workers who abandoned their job searches to return to the workforce. The lure of new jobs also could cause people to move back to Buffalo Niagara, said Frederick G. Floss, a SUNY Buffalo State economist.

Applicants will go through a multistep process, beginning with prescreening overseen by the Labor Department.

Candidates will receive an invitation to take a test called the Test for Adult Basic Education to measure their basic skill level and aptitude. The test will be administered at various times and locations by the Labor Department or other local groups, including the Buffalo Employment & Training Center.

“It’s not an SAT-level test. It’s relatively simple and easy for the majority of candidates,” Harvey said. “It’s going to evaluate to make sure our candidates have the appropriate level of technical reading and math, and they’re also prescreening for some advanced manufacturing experience.”

Applicants who pass the test then will get a telephone call from SolarCity recruiters. “We’ll be looking for aptitude and attitude,” Harvey said.

Candidates then will be passed back to the Labor Department for a second level of screening, which includes testing in manual dexterity and some experience in a simulated clean room environment, similar to one that will be used for about 10 percent of the work at the SolarCity factory.

“It will be dexterity testing in a simulated work environment,” Harvey said. “The current plans are for them to get a gown on in an environment that simulates what would be in the plant.”

Qualified candidates then would be sent back to SolarCity, where recruiters will determine who gets hired – and when. Applicants will have to pass a drug test.

Harvey said the hiring process will be spread throughout next year and beyond. How fast the hiring goes will be partly determined by how quickly construction is completed on the factory and all of the required tooling and equipment can be installed.

The factory, which is being built with $750 million in state subsidies as part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic-development initiative, will have the capacity to produce as many as 10,000 solar panels each day on its five assembly lines, each stretching for about a quarter-mile.

“Patience is the key. We are building the largest solar panel plant in the Western Hemisphere, so there is some complexity in construction,” Harvey said. “We’re doing a very unique balancing act of when tools get turned on to have training performed and have candidates in place.”

The posted job openings include positions such as process technicians that seek applicants with high school diplomas and list an associate degree as being “a plus.” The company also is seeking module technicians for applicants with high school diplomas.

“We’re going to need employees who have some technical experience to handle the very high-level robotics and work with the robotics,” Harvey said. “Just like in an auto assembly line, there are those types of stages where you need a very technical individual to help run the machinery.

“Then you’ll need a middle-level technician operator role to make sure the machines are running and fed. Then there is a standard operator role in an entry-level position where they come in, they learn and they have the dexterity to keep the parts moving along through the line.”

Harvey added, “We just want to have a labor pool and have the options. We’re going to be hiring and manning in Buffalo for a long time.”

All of SolarCity’s job openings in Buffalo can be found in the careers section of its website, solarcity.com.

email: drobinson@buffnews.com