Wacker officials on Thursday restated their intention to start up its massive polysilicon production plant in Bradley County by mid-2015.
To staff the $1.8 billion complex, the Germany-based company graduated 44 more new lead chemical operators and technicians from its Wacker Institute at Chattanooga State Community College.
"They've got to be ready when we prepare for [plant] commissioning," said Konrad Bachhuber, who is overseeing construction of the factory near Charleston, Tenn., that is to employ 650 people.
Last October, Wacker announced it was pushing back the planned startup of the plant by about 18 months to mid-2015, citing too much production capacity for polysilicon in the marketplace.
Last month, a key competitor, Hemlock Semiconductor, laid off three-fourths of its employees in Clarksville, Tenn., shortly before the planned start of production at its new $1.2 billion plant. Officials of the Michigan-based company said they will cut 300 of the 400 jobs in Clarksville and weren't sure if there would be any production this year.
But while Wacker has slowed construction, it continues to build and train its workforce, officials said Thursday.
Bachhuber said that about 1,000 builders are on site raising the plant that will produce a key ingredient in solar power panels.
"We slowed down the pace a little," he said, noting the original timeline called for 2,000 or so construction workers.
He said that nearly 300 Wacker employees are working full-time at the site even though operation is still two years away. Of that number, about 90 are with Wacker's U.S. parent while another 70 employees from Germany are on site, according to the company.
"They're supporting the project," Bachhuber said. "There are many tasks to do."
The Wacker employees are doing jobs ranging from working on systems which need to be in place when the startup process is initiated in late 2014 to safety checks, he said.
"There are things they have to execute," Bachhuber said.
David Scott, a new Wacker Institute graduate and a lab technician for the company, said he put a lot of work into completing the training program.
"It's good to see the plant going up and we're helping to be a part of it," he said.
Meanwhile, the training program at CSCC continues to accept new students.
Forty prospects enrolled last summer, another 60 in the fall and 12 in the winter, said George Graham, who directs the Wacker Institute.
"There's continued strong interest in the program," he said.
Graham added, however, that some people in the program have accepted jobs with other companies. He said students who go through the program can apply what they learn to other chemical companies.
Not everyone who enters the program is guaranteed a job at Wacker.
However, Wacker Institute graduates have first consideration for all chemical operator positions, said Erika Burk, the company's human resources director.
"It is our goal to be able to use only graduates from this program," said Burk in an e-mail. "We encourage people who are interested to check into the program because we hope to have enough graduates to fill our hundreds of chemical operator positions."
She said the institute will continue as a pipeline of employees for Wacker even after the plant is fully operational.
Dr. Jim Catanzaro, CSCC's president, said he's looking forward to more years of partnering with Wacker to train its workforce.
The institute is part of a $5 million project at CSCC, with Wacker having donated $3 million to the college for the construction of a state-of-the-art chemical training plant for the institute.
The institute and other engineering technology programs are housed in the former Olan Mills building at CSCC.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.