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Wacker plant in Bradley County weighing conditions for expansion

From Chattanooga Times Free Press: Wacker's chief executive in America said its Bradley County plant is hiring to fill from 20 to 40 jobs, though

From Chattanooga Times Free Press: Wacker’s chief executive in America said its Bradley County plant is hiring to fill from 20 to 40 jobs, though it’s still evaluating market conditions for a large expansion announced a year ago and the timing is unclear.


“The economy the way it is, we’re looking at customer demand and the right economics,” said Wacker Chemical Corp. CEO David Wilhoit in a recent interview about the chemical plant that employs nearly 750 people.


Wacker announced in July 2022 it planned to invest another $200 million in its Charleston, Tennessee, plant and hire 200 more employees. At the time, the company said it planned to add production of new silicone rubber and sealant.


Earlier this month at Cleveland’s PIE Innovation Center, Wilhoit said the company doesn’t know what the timing is for the expansion.


Wacker is a closed loop manufacturer and instead of selling byproducts, it uses materials for next phases of production, Wilhoit said.


“This is what we eventually want to build out,” he said. “We’re building out our current manufacturing right now. We have 550 acres there, and we’ve only touched it.”


Christian Hartel, the company’s global CEO, agreed in an interview that Wacker is still evaluating the expansion.


“We closely look at options how to expand,” he said. “We have the site, and it’s made for future setup.”


After investing $2.5 billion in Charleston, Germany-based Wacker began production in 2015 of hyper-pure polysilicon used in semiconductors and high-efficiency solar cells.


In 2019, Wacker added a $150 million production line to use some of the byproducts of its main plant to produce pyrogenic silica, which is used in goods from lipstick and toothpaste to paints, fiberglass and silicone elastomers.


Last year was Wacker’s best globally for the 109-year-old company with group sales hitting more than $8.4 billion, Wilhoit said. But, the overall economy worldwide is down, and Wacker has offered guidance that revenues will be off this year, he said.


Still, the company is in a lot of different market segments, Wilhoit said.


“That makes us more buoyant across the cycle,” said the official who is in his 33rd year with Wacker.


The company’s U.S. CEO, who manages 10 locations and 1,800 employees, said finding qualified workers can be difficult, which is a problem across the nation due to low unemployment.


In Bradley County, he cited the PIE Center’s efforts as it helps development the region’s workforce. The PIE Center, which takes its name from partnerships in industry and education, is a $34.5 million education and training facility that had its grand opening almost a year ago. It’s a partnership of the local public schools, colleges, the private sector, nonprofit organizations and the state.


A 14,000-square-feet event space at the PIE Center was officially named Wacker Commons after Wacker earlier made a $1 million gift to the center.


Wacker has found “a great opportunity” at the center with a focus on science, technology, engineering and math education as the plant fills its employee pipeline, Wilhoit said.


“We’ve got a lot of property,” he said. “We have great aspirations. They’ll only be successful if we work closely with the community to develop the talent.”


Ken Collins, the Charleston plant’s site leader, said earlier this month the company engages with the community, especially when it comes to education.


He noted a program launched last year that works with adults without a high school diploma who come to work temporarily with Wacker for about 90 days. They go the plant Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays while doing classroom studies on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Collins said.


Also, some existing Wacker employees mentor the students, he said.


“That opens the door for continuing education and growth and careers far beyond what they were eligible for,” Collins said. “We’ve graduated nine and kept seven.”