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Panasonic plans job fairs for Tesla's solar panel factory

With production scheduled to start at the sprawling Tesla Inc. solar panel factory in less than two months, Tesla's partner, Panasonic, is ramping up its search for workers for its portion of the South Park Avenue facility.

Panasonic has scheduled three job fairs, including one Tuesday night at the Seneca Babcock Community Center on the East Side, to recruit workers for the 300 jobs that it plans to fill at the Tesla factory.

While Tesla's predecessor, SolarCity, previously held job fairs in late 2015 and in 2016, those led to little immediate hiring because of delays in starting production at the local factory. Panasonic's recruitment drive is timed more closely to match the latest schedule for opening the $950 million facility by the end of summer.

Panasonic currently has listings for 25 different types of jobs in Buffalo, ranging from engineers and technicians to production and manufacturing operators.

The three Panasonic job fairs will be held:

– 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Seneca Babcock Community Center, 1168 Seneca St.

– 10 a.m. July 18 at Erie Community College North, 6205 Main St., Williamsville. The session will be held in Room 100 of Building K.

– 5:30 p.m. July 26 at the Buffalo Education and Training Center, 77 Goodell St.

An experienced solar panel manufacturer with its own high-efficiency technology, Panasonic will play a major role in the operation of the Buffalo factory. It is expected to make solar cells at the Buffalo factory that it will sell to Tesla for use in a solar roofing product that Tesla CEO Elon Musk believes will become a big seller among homeowners who need a new roof.

Tesla expects to eventually make the solar roof product in Buffalo, as well.

SolarCity originally expected to make solar panels and its solar roof in Buffalo using technology developed by Silevo, a California startup that was developing high-efficiency panel technology that SolarCity executives hoped would help drive down the cost of its solar arrays.

But in December – a month after acquiring SolarCity – Tesla cut a deal to bring in Panasonic to make solar cells at the Buffalo factory in an arrangement similar to one in place at Tesla's massive battery gigafactory in Nevada, where Panasonic makes the cells that go into Tesla's batteries. As part of the agreement, Panasonic agreed to invest more than $250 million in the Buffalo factory.

Tesla will oversee operations at the Buffalo factory, with Panasonic making solar cells at the facility, including the cells that will go into the solar roof. Those solar cells now are expected to be a hybrid product that combines technology from Panasonic with some aspects of the technology from Silevo. Tesla will manufacture the solar roof tiles that contain those solar cells. Panasonic also is expected to make conventional solar panels at the Buffalo factory.

The Panasonic jobs are part of Tesla's overall pledge to either create or help bring 2,900 jobs to the Buffalo Niagara region.

Tesla has promised to create 500 manufacturing jobs at the factory, along with nearly 1,000 other positions in various support, sales and administrative roles in Buffalo. Tesla, in return for $750 million in state subsidies through the state's Buffalo Billion economic development initiative to build the factory and buy much of the equipment that will go inside it, also has pledged to help bring 1,440 other jobs to the Buffalo Niagara region through suppliers, vendors and service providers for the factory.

Tesla executives said this spring that they are planning to start production at the Buffalo factory by the end of summer, with the factory reaching its full output sometime during 2019. As a result, the pace of hiring is likely to be gradual as production ramps up.

Panasonic and Tesla representatives did not respond to a request to comment. Howard Zemsky, the Buffalo developer who runs Empire State Development, declined to comment.

The factory already was supposed to be buzzing with activity. Originally expected to be at full production by early this year, the South Buffalo factory has been delayed by SolarCity's deteriorating finances, which led to its acquisition last year by Tesla.

The residential rooftop solar installer's once-breakneck growth also has slowed, partly because of a deliberate decision to cut costs and try to stem swelling losses and partly because of slowing growth in the residential solar market. The company also has shifted its focus to the development of its new solar roofing product, rather than high-efficiency solar panels, as originally planned. Tesla's decision to bring in Panasonic as a partner also changed the technology that will go into the conventional solar panels and the solar roofing tiles that the factory eventually will make.

As plans for the factory have changed, fewer of its promised 1,460 direct jobs are expected to be tied to its increasingly automated manufacturing operations, while more are likely to be sales and support tasks.

 

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