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Panasonic ramps up hiring at RiverBend with job fair

Cory Chapman, who just moved back to Lancaster from Arizona, is hoping he can find the production job he’s seeking at Panasonic.

“I’ve been applying at a lot of places,” Chapman said, as he waited for the start of Panasonic’s career fair Wednesday evening at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center.

Panasonic, which is starting production workers at $14 to $18 an hour depending on the position, caught Chapman’s eye.

“I’m looking for a job that pays more than $12 an hour,” he said.

Panasonic hopes to have slightly more than 300 people working by the end of the year at its portion of the Tesla solar panel factory in South Buffalo.

Panasonic started making solar panels at the RiverBend factory in early fall and the company is preparing to expand its production to include the solar cells that go into those panels by February, company officials said.

The company currently has 45 openings — spread among 15 different job titles, ranging from production and manufacturing operators to machine operators, electrical and mechanical technicians and engineers.

6 things to watch as Panasonic gears up to start production

The company expects to hire another 60 workers or so by early spring, said Terry Van Epps, a Panasonic talent acquisition manager.

About 150 people signed up in advance for the career fair, and Van Epps said he expected about 250 people to attend the three-hour event, which was split into several sessions. After each session, each applicant had a brief interview with a Panasonic recruiter that was expected to last anywhere from two to five minutes.

Panasonic told applicants that they likely would hear back from the company within two weeks on whether they would be called back for a more lengthy second interview.

“With the holiday time, not a lot is happening,” Van Epps said. “We’re getting ahead of that.”

Panasonic began assembling solar panels, made out of modules imported from the company’s solar cell factories in the Far East, in late summer. In February, the company plans to start making solar cells — the individual devices, similar in some ways to a semiconductor, that generate electricity by converting sunlight into electrical energy. Each solar panel has 96 interconnected solar cells.

Panasonic plans to employ 300 by year end at solar factory

Panasonic’s hiring is the most visible activity taking place at the Tesla factory. Tesla itself has online job postings for more than two dozen jobs in Buffalo, including production positions, but the company has not held any hiring events or made any public efforts to recruit workers in volume.

The opportunity to work in the fast-growing solar energy industry brought Alex Smigelski of Lackawanna to the job fair.

“The whole solar industry, in general, is booming,” he said.

The factory, which is owned by the state and leased to Tesla, is part of the state’s Buffalo Billion economic development initiative. It is expected to employ 1,460 people and scheduled to reach full production by 2019, with a stated capacity of producing enough solar panels and solar roofing tiles to generate 1 gigawatt of electricity. Tesla executives have said the factory’s capacity can be expanded to as much as 2 gigawatts.

The Panasonic jobs are part of Tesla’s pledge to create or help bring 2,900 local jobs at the factory or at suppliers and service providers in exchange for $750 million in state subsidies through the Buffalo Billion.

Tesla moved into the solar energy business in November 2016 by acquiring rooftop solar installer SolarCity. A month later, in December 2016, Tesla made a deal to bring in Panasonic to make solar cells and panels 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 batteries for Tesla’s electric cars.

As part of the agreement, Panasonic agreed to invest more than $250 million in the Buffalo factory, easing the capital demands that Tesla was facing as it ramps up production on its more affordable Model 3 electric vehicle.

The deal also locked in Tesla as a key customer for the solar cells and panels that Panasonic makes in Buffalo. The agreement sets up a system for Tesla to buy Panasonic’s solar cells and panels, in amounts that will be determined each quarter and refined in monthly meetings between executives at both companies. The agreement also sets the prices that Tesla will pay for Panasonic’s cells and panels, subject to revision, but the details are not spelled out in a heavily redacted version of a contract filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The solar cells that Panasonic plans to start making in February are expected to be used in Telsa’s solar roofing product.

Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive officer, has said he expects production of the solar roof — which looks like a conventional roof but has solar cells inside — to start in Buffalo by the end of the year and then ramp up quickly.

Tesla to make solar roof in Buffalo by year's end, Elon Musk says

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