A few years after finishing high school in 1994, Steve Andersen found work building auto hoods and fenders in a loud, gritty auto plant in his hometown here. Today, he has a new job in town: supervising technicians in smocks and hairnets who create material for solar panels in a white-floored laboratory.

The 34-year-old is a beneficiary of an economic shift in the Bay Area's fourth-largest city, which is known for the shut-down Nummi auto plant where Mr. Andersen once worked

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