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U.S. official praises local sites

Labor secretary visits solar start-up, Jeep plant

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U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis speaks with Michael Cicak, CEO of Willard & Kelsey Solar Group, at the firm's plant in Perrysburg. She called the company key in helping replace lost manufacturing jobs.

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U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said alternative energy companies such as Willard & Kelsey Solar Group are playing an important role in putting displaced workers back to work.

She toured Willard & Kelsey's Perrysburg plant Tuesday afternoon, viewing the company's solar panel manufacturing process. The company said it has 85 to 90 employees and plans to hire 200 more by the end of the year.

Ms. Solis, who during her Toledo area visit also toured Chrysler Group LLC's Toledo Assembly complex, talked with several Willard & Kelsey employees, noting that some of them previously worked in the automotive sector.

She said the solar-panel manufacturer start-up and other green-energy firms will be instrumental in replacing traditional manufacturing jobs that have been lost in northwest Ohio.

"So much of their application and skills can be applied to this industry," she said.

Michael Cicak, Willard & Kelsey chief executive officer, said the labor secretary's visit highlights the company's commitment to building its solar panel business in the United States. "We don't have to go to China," he said. "We will be the lowest- cost producer of solar panels with the finest efficiency in the world, right here."

Earlier Tuesday, Ms. Solis spoke to dozens of line workers at Toledo Assembly while they put together Jeep Wranglers and celebrated the plant's award-winning efficiency and union-management cooperation.

Speaking to reporters in the Wrangler plant's final assembly area during a lunchtime break, Ms. Solis said it was "good to see the productivity, the innovation occurring here at this Chrysler Jeep plant, and to see the enthusiasm of the workers. Now, through innovation and techniques that are being used, they're more efficient, they're curbing problems that might come up with ergonomics, especially trying to make sure that they minimize [injuries]."

She pointed to the plant's economic role in Toledo and beyond and hinted at a production expansion for the plant that was addressed last month by Chrysler executives in Detroit.

"What's wonderful about all of this is that this is a shot in the arm for our economy and the world, because these items here that are being produced, the [Jeep Wrangler], is not just sent here in the local area or in the United States. [This] is a product that is obviously of great interest in many other countries," Ms. Solis said.

"That's what I liked hearing from [Toledo Assembly Manager Mauro] Pino earlier, that they are actually going to be upping their production and doing more, and they've exceeded what they projected last year, and therefore seeing that there's more interest in this particular vehicle."

Mr. Pino later clarified that the "increased production" he addressed had to do with the daily and yearly output of the Wrangler plant, which produced 134,000 units in 2010, up from just under 100,000 units in 2009, to keep up with customer demand.

Wrangler sales in the United States grew 15 percent in 2010 and 32 percent in January over the same period a year ago.

Toledo Assembly's two other products, the Jeep Liberty and Dodge Nitro, are made in a neighboring factory to the Wrangler and also had double-digit increases during the last 13 months.

Contact Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@theblade.com or 419-724-6091.

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