Wacker asks self: Is capacity enough?

Wacker asks self: Is capacity enough?

May 17th, 2011 by Mike Pare and Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

Rolf Hirsenkorn, vice president of production for Polysilicon for Wacker Chemical, talks about the new Bradley County plant Monday at the Chattanooga Convention Center. Staff Photo by Tim Barber/Chattanooga Times Free Press

Photo by

A top Wacker Chemical Corp. official said Monday that expansion of the company's $1.5 billion plant under construction in Bradley County remains on its radar.

"If we are competitive at this site, there may be further plans to come," said Rolf Hirsenkorn, vice president of polysilicon production for the German company.

Hirsenkorn, speaking at the Tennessee Valley Corridor technology summit in Chattanooga, said the facility that will service the solar energy industry already will create more than the 650 planned jobs when it's finished in late 2013.

During construction, which started earlier this year, there will be 1,000 people on site at the peak, he said. Also, another 650 will supply and service the building site, Hirsenkorn said.

In addition, it's estimated 650 spin-off jobs will be created in the area. The plant is expected to create 1,000 more supplier slots, he said.

Equipped with the latest technology, the plant will serve as a "nucleus for a solar cluster" with high-paying jobs, Hirsenkorn said.

He said experts predict double-digit percentage growth in the solar energy market in years to come.

Tim Spires, who heads the Chattanooga Regional Manufacturers Association, said that next-generation manufacturing is driven by customer focus.

"It needs to be totally connected to customers," he said.

Future work force

Panelists said Monday at a session on education that it's not possible to meet the needs of growing high-tech companies without graduating ever-larger numbers of high-tech students.

From extreme classroom makeovers to sending Ph.D. physicists to teach middle-school science classes, panelists like Cheryl Harvey, work force preparedness manager at Kingsport, Tenn.-based Eastman Chemical Co., said they're doing all they can to stop more high-tech jobs from moving overseas.

"The problem is down in the elementary and middle school areas," she said. "If you don't build the foundations strong, by the time they get to high school, they've given up."

Though many education reformers have concentrated on getting Web cameras and iPads into students' hands, putting kids in touch with technology is only part of a solution that includes both content and context, said John Horack, vice president for research at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

"We all do a pretty good job of teaching content," Horack said, but added that "You don't want the nursing student who is just fresh off his distance learning powerpoint slide textbook education to stick a needle in my arm, you want him to have some kind of context."

Companies looking to cut costs in a competitive global economy don't want to train students to do their job, they want them already trained, he said, which is why many schools are beginning to emphasize real-world experience, research and lab work to motivate students.

The key is to establish a connection between what students' goals are, and what tools they need to achieve those goals, by encouraging "societal aspirations," said Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Contact staff writer Mike Pare at mpare@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6318.