Trickle of new jobs has civic leaders hopeful

November 19, 2010 6:31:42 PM PST
There are hopeful signs of job creation in Silicon Valley. An analysis released Friday by the California Employment Development Department indicates that 4,000 manufacturing jobs have been created in the past year -- Oct. 2010 vs. Oct. 2009 -- in the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara region. The biggest gains were in the computer and electronics sectors.

Solar Junction, a small private manufacturing company in San Jose, is a prime example. It just more than doubled its plant from 25,000 to 55,000 square feet, and it plans to add 85 permanent, full-time jobs on top of the 35 already on the payroll. Solar Junction makes high-efficiency solar cells that are incorporated into concentrated photo-voltaic arrays for large-scale energy production.

Jim Weldon, CEO of Solar Junction, says the time is right to expand the company and hire additional staff because he senses an economic turn-around. The solar industry, however, could face challenges ahead as federal stimulus programs end and other incentives may be eliminated as Washington policymakers tackle the growing deficit.

Most companies hold off hiring until they know for sure the economy has rebounded.

"Waiting in that sense is a little more dangerous from that standpoint, so we go more by leading trends than we would go by actually seeing that we have absolute evidence of it," said Weldon.

Despite that, Weldon says he is committed to creating jobs in the U.S., instead of sending the work offshore. The company is private and is funded by venture capital firm investments.

Other solar companies concur with Weldon and his company's outlook. Mark Mitchell, senior vice president and general manager of Serious Energy in Santa Clara, says there is a demand for a new generation of energy management technology to help companies reduce costs and boost efficiency. It recently installed a new energy management system, known as a micro-grid, at Santa Clara University. Such systems are able to manage a portfolio of alternative fuels, such as solar, biodiesel, wind and fuel cells. The Serious Energy system is installed at 14 buildings on the university campus. Mitchell said that the return on investment can run from one to three years.

"It's not just photo-voltaics, but it might be a Bloom box or other technologies... wind, for example... that could be used in a portfolio to deliver the local power necessary to run on a free and sustainable basis off the grid," said Mitchell.

"If you can optimize your air conditioning system or your lighting system with more smarts than what you have today, which is a simple control problem, not a hardware installation problem, then it makes huge financial sense," said serious energy engineer Agustin Fonts.

Job creation for now is only a trickle, but there's hope that it will grow into a trend, and it has city leaders saying, even on an overcast winter day, they're beginning to see rays of hope.


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