The future of solar

June 26, 2011

Energy

Twin Creeks has openings; Stion on the way

Mississippians interested in high-paying jobs at solar panel manufacturing plants need to visit Northwest Mississippi Community College in Senatobia or Pearl River Community College in Hattiesburg.

Higher-level solar jobs require a two-year degree in science or technology or a four-year degree in industrial or manufacturing engineering. Other positions require aptitude testing.

Twin Creeks Technologies, the first of two solar panel manufacturing facilities planned for Mississippi, has opened in Senatobia and will create a total of 500 jobs while ramping up to full capacity within the next five years.

Similarly, the Stion plant, which will open in Hattiesburg later this year, should create 1,000 jobs.

Preferred applicants for these plants will have had coursework or experience in the semiconductor or solar industries.

Given the education status of much of the Mississippi workforce, state colleges and community colleges have a plethora of potential students. According to a study released by the Mississippi Economic Policy Center, more than 348,000 working-age adults in Mississippi have no formal education beyond high school, and almost 75 percent of Mississippi’s working-age adults do not have a post-secondary degree.

Twin Creeks Technologies

Twin Creeks has already established scholarship programs at Northwest Mississippi Community College (NMCC), the University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University. To be eligible for one year of paid tuition, students must have a 3.8 grade point average, demonstrate academic achievement in math and science and write a paper on the relevance of alternative energy. Scholarships have already been awarded for the coming school year.

Twin Creeks will create crystalline silicon solar panels and plans to partner with these institutions for workforce development, although no concrete plans were in place at press time.

“We are actively involved with all schools specifically through internships, college recruiting events and speaking engagements to students. As we move forward there will be increased engagement with schools in the area,” said Tarpan Dixit, a company spokesperson.

David Bledsoe, director of workforce development at NMCC, said workforce development plans are in the early stages.

“We’re working with them on a daily basis to set up specific training for the new hires. But it’s still several months down the road. They’ll hire a few people by the end of the year, but it’s mostly for next year,” Bledsoe said.

A representative from the Senatobia Workforce Investment Network (WIN) Job Center, which is operated by NMCC, had not responded at press time.

Twin Creeks currently has 15 employees, seven of whom are from Mississippi, including at least one Ole Miss engineering graduate who won’t be available for comment until the fall, the company said.

The California-based company currently has openings for three Mississippi jobs posted on its web site — equipment engineering technician, test integration engineer and maintenance technician.

Dixit said Twin Creeks now has 95 employees distributed between its San Jose, Calif., headquarters, its research and development facility near Boston and the Mississippi facility. “Nearly all of the growth will occur in Mississippi,” he said, and the majority of jobs will be for operators, or technicians, which will require two-year degrees from a community college or a vocational school like ITT Tech.

Technicians “are actually on the floor making sure things are running,” Dixit said.

The company would not reveal estimate salary ranges for employees, but according to salary.com, the average national salaries for technicians start in the neighborhood of $40,000. Industrial engineering salaries start at $55,000.

Stion

Pearl River Community College in Hattiesburg is already screening applicants for California-based Stion, which will occupy the old Sunbeam plant in the Hattiesburg-Forrest County Industrial Park and manufacture high-efficiency, thin film solar panels.

Dr. Scott Alsobrooks, director of PRCC’s workforce education, said the college is currently administering the National Career Readiness Certificate test, which measures applicants’ skills in problem solving, critical thinking, mathematical reasoning and other skills. Interest is “increasing every day,” he said.

Approximately 40 Stion employees are already at work in PRCC’s Advanced Technology Center, a business incubator.

PRCC workforce training project manager Lee Bell said PRCC began testing in March and has probably tested “well over 500 people. Once the company made the announcement back in January, immediately there were over 1,000 people who put in applications at the WIN Job Center. At that point they were waiting for the company to say, ‘This is what we’re looking for.’ Of those 500, we probably could have tested 600 or 650. Right at 50 percent of those people who tested scored high enough in the range this company was looking for.”

Additionally, PRCC has assisted with Train the Trainer expense of 17 shift supervisors who are currently in San Jose learning the solar panel manufacturing process. These shift supervisors, most of whom are Mississippians, will come back and train other employees, Bell said.

Equipment has arrived at the plant, and test panels should be produced by late September or October. Plans call for 135 employees to be hired and trained by the end of 2011.

Although Stion would like to hire candidates with semiconductor or solar industry knowledge and experience, Stion’s human resources manager Bob Beisner said, “Realistically, they’re not there. And we’ve really been quite pleased (with the applicant pool).”

Stion has picked up 12 employees from Cooper Power Systems, a transformer manufacturer in Lumberton, which is closing its facility with 87 workers at end of July. Stion plans to have more job fairs at Cooper, whose employees have a good work ethic, Beisner said.

“Right now we’re trying to get people who have experience, but we will go ahead and bring people on straight of out of high school who want to go to work for us” as part of later expansions, Beisner said.

Whereas Twin Creek’s workforce will consist mainly of degree-holders, 80 percent of Stion’s job openings will be production line jobs that can be filled by those with high school diplomas. Only about 20 percent of Stion’s jobs will require two- or four-year degrees.

Plant technicians and operators and those with ancillary positions — such as warehousing staff, material handlers, quality technicians — will have a pay range of $14 an hour to $17 an hour.

Those with associate’s degrees should earn $20 an hour. Engineering salaries will be around $75,000 annually.

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