Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Solar Firm Seeks UAW Partnership to Run New Detroit Manufacturing Center

Here's a little something for the Right-to-Work-for-Less crowd to chew on...

Kousay Said -- CEO of ZeroBase Energy LLC, the newest tenant at Detroit's NextEnergy -- plans to rapidly ramp up a new manufacturing center in the Detroit area. And he wants it to be run by members of the United Auto Workers.

A CEO moves a business owned by a New York private equity company to Detroit from Maine in part so he can hire higher-paid union workers? Absolutely, he says. A union shop is crucial to his plans to take a company founded in 2009 from its first revenue in 2010 to $1 billion in revenue in the next five or six years.

"I've had advanced discussions with the UAW. I'm very interested in having a union shop," said Said. "We're going to have a run rate of 1,000 units a year by the end of this year, and the best way to do that is to have a highly trained workforce."

The units he referred to are portable arrays of solar panels housed inside a glass-filled composite exterior shell. Carrying the trademarked name ReGenerator, they generate electricity in the field.

"Our strategy for production needs an automotive discipline. We don't need to educate that workforce. They can bring a lot of value to a production line. The union now is very interested in new ways of engaging management. This will yield benefits for both of us. I'm very excited about it," he said.

The ReGenerator line is currently being used by the Marines in Afghanistan, and ZeroBase assembles its products using components entirely made in the USA. The company is a small start-up based in Maine and only has 11 employees as of now. They hope to find an empty automotive space in Detroit and bring that total to 60 employees within a year. UAW President Bob King says it's unusual that a company outside of the automotive sector would seek UAW members, but Skip Simms, senior VP of Ann Arbor Spark, knows we have the sort of talent high-end manufacturers need.

"You will definitely see more of this in the future," he said of companies willing to pay a premium for trained workers for high-end manufacturing. "We discovered a couple of years ago that skilled talent, particularly highly skilled talent, is one of the top recruiting tools we have in Michigan, if not the top recruiting tool."

Wonder what will happen to that talent if Republicans pass all those union-busting laws, and right-to-work drives down wages in this state. Wonder what will happen when Republican budget cuts increase college tuition to the point where it forces young people to seek this sort of education elsewhere.

Wonder if anyone will point out that trend if it should happen in the coming years. For now, let's hope we can draw more diverse companies here with the talent we currently have, because with current policy that is eating all our seed corn, educating and retaining that talent in the future looks pretty uncertain.