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Staff photo by Jenna Walker/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Construction workers survey the land of the Wacker construction site in Bradley County. The plant will manufacture materials for the production of solar panels.

When Wacker Chemical finishes building a Bradley County plant in late 2013, officials hope to already have hired most of its planned 650-member work force, an official says.

"We're gathering many resumes. We're excited about the prospects," said Jeff Zierenberg, Wacker's manager of human resources here.

The Wacker project, announced two years ago, was at times so behind the scenes that some wondered out loud about it coming to fruition.

But just two months ago, before plant construction fully geared up at the Bradley site, the German manufacturer announced plans to grow the project in both jobs, by one third, and investment, by nearly 50 percent to $1.45 billion.

Wacker has stepped up site work on the 550-acre parcel that will house the plant near Interstate 75 and the Lauderdale Memorial Highway exit.

"It's nice to see progress out there," said Gary Farlow, the Cleveland-Bradley Chamber of Commerce chief executive, adding it has been a long process of Wacker doing planning and engineering work that wasn't visible.

Munich, Germany-based Wacker plans to manufacture hyperpure polycrystalline silicon, a base product in solar-power cells. The Bradley plant is its first solar cell facility outside Germany. Wacker plans to start producing polycrystalline silicon in volume at the plant in early 2014.

Wacker said it decided to expand the Bradley project because it's convinced solar power will play a key role in the global renewable energy mix. Therefore, it sees a continued long-term growth of the demand for polysilicon.

Worker training

Wacker is trying to fill the plant's first 70 lead chemical operator jobs. Zierenberg said the company is advertising and working with Chattanooga State Community College and Cleveland State Community College along with local high schools.

"We're excited about the talent pool," he said.

Ju-Hsin Lusk, Chattanooga State's managing director for corporate training, work force development and continuing education, said teaming with Wacker has been "fast-paced ... do it yesterday."

"They want to ramp up," she said.

Plans are to have the first 70 starting at CSCC for the August semester, Zierenberg said. They will be on a six-month track for the classroom work, the Wacker official said.

The employees will start at $15 per hour, ramping up to $21 per hour, he said. Volkswagen is paying production workers at its Chattanooga auto assembly plant $14.50 per hour, growing to $19.50 per hour over 36 months.

When they complete classroom studies, they'll travel to Germany for six months where on-the-job training will take place at Wacker's facilities in Burghausen, Zierenberg said. That site is Wacker's principal production location where nearly 10,000 employees make thousands of different products, according to the company.

"We want to make it an engaging and productive trip," Zierenberg said.

The initial 70 employees will be first-line supervisors, he said, and they'll train other workers as they come on board.

Farlow said that in addition to the Wacker plant, he eventually expects to see spinoff businesses and jobs.

Economic developers are looking at "downstream customers" of the business or other Wacker divisions working in different parts of the company's processes.

"They don't have a big supply chain like Volkswagen would," he said.