Ohio’s ‘Voltage Valley’ seeks to grow its EV workforce
Auto industry jobs are returning to Ohio’s Mahoning Valley with the growth of a nascent electric vehicle manufacturing cluster.
Now local leaders are taking action to ensure there will be enough skilled workers to fill these new positions.
Youngstown State University is hosting a virtual job fair on Wednesday for emerging electric vehicle, energy storage and other technology companies in the region, as well as other employers. The school is also launching a ‘skills accelerator’ program to help train workers.
Despite decades of layoffs, Ohio still ranks second behind Michigan for auto parts manufacturing jobs and third nationally for motor vehicle manufacturing jobs. Some jobs in the electric vehicle industry will look like gasoline-powered cars. Others will be radically different.
âThere is no repetitive work in our environment,â said Tom Gallagher, chief operating officer at Ultium Cells, a joint venture of General Motors and LG Energy Solution, which is slated to open a battery plant in Warren’s. next year. He spoke on a June 7 panel that was part of Green Energy Ohio’s 2021 electric vehicle tour.
Working with raw materials early in the process requires an understanding of chemistry. Battery assembly will take place in an automated cleanroom environment. Gallagher said the company is looking for employees who can work with programmable logic controllers and handle troubleshooting and other aspects of automation. It requires skills in STEM fields – science, engineering, technology, and math.
âYou may not necessarily need a graduate degree, but you need more than a high school diploma,â said Jennifer Oddo, who heads the education and of Workforce Innovation at Youngstown State University. In January, the Department of Energy announced a $ 1 million project to help Youngstown State and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory set up a workforce training center for the energy storage. Trade unions will also play a role.
âThe IBEW is really excited to be a part of this green energy transition,â said Dave Bush, longtime member of Local 573. The union is already offering apprenticeships to work in solar energy fields. , wind and other clean energies. As the electric vehicle industry grows in the region, more learning opportunities will become available, he said.
Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce is actively recruiting more companies into the supply chain. BRITE Energy Innovators has a growing practice of electric mobility. And auto parts maker Aptiv has an electric vehicle charging research center in the region.
History of innovation and loss
âHistorically, we’ve made things here,â said Rick Stockburger, President and CEO of BRITE Energy Innovators. âWe have been innovating and creating here for a long time.
The first Packard automobile hit the streets of Warren in 1899. The state also has a long history of electric vehicles, including the Baker electric cars of Cleveland and the Millburn Light Electric vehicles of Toledo.
“Until about 1911, 80% of all cars on the road were either electric or steam,” said John Lutsch, director of programs and marketing for the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum in Cleveland. âLike today, you can just press a button and go. “
Gasoline cars only became dominant after a drop in gasoline prices, the beginnings of the electric starter to replace the crank, and various other innovations that would spawn an industry employing thousands in Michigan and Ohio. .
âI was born around the time when the steel mills started shutting down and things were basically in decline,â said Todd Johnson, pastor of historic Second Baptist Church in Warren, who moderated the Green Energy Ohio panel. âFrankly, it has probably affected the mentality and the outlook and even the verbiage in the way we talk about the valley. We probably talked more about what we lost, as opposed to initiatives or opportunities that could be a gain for us.
Beginning in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Jones and Laughlin, and US Steel closed steel mills. The next two decades also brought layoffs and other woes in the auto industry. The financial difficulties of the big three automakers reached their climax in the first decade of this century. Despite a federal bailout and millions of state tax incentives, GM shut down its Lordstown Cruze plant in 2019. All of these developments have had ripple effects across the region.
Poverty rates for Trumbull and Mahoning counties before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic were around 15% and 18% respectively. In April, the corresponding unemployment rates were 6.7% and 6.8%, placing them in the state’s four main counties.
Addressing skills gaps
In addition to local colleges, Mahoning Valley’s location near major thoroughfares puts it within an hour of the universities of Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Akron. But recruitment problems remain.
“The workforce presented to me does not reflect that of the community that resides here,” said Gallagher of Ultium Cells, noting that he faced a shortage of African American, Hispanic and female applicants. . âI have to change what I do to attract them.
One of the problems is the lack of skills. Another problem is that many young adults âdon’t see the hope of what our parents went through 50 years ago,â Johnson said.
âThe digital divide is real, as well as the racial and socio-economic lines,â Johnson said. About 95% of the country’s adolescents have access to a smartphone. Yet many teens and adults in her community do not know the basics of âproductiveâ use of technology, such as attaching a resume to an email.
There are many skills yet to be taught, said Oddo of Youngstown State. “We will be offering free industry certifications to our young people interested in jobs, to those who need a little more technology experience and exposure to acquire these digital skills.”
Training people who have already lost high-paying jobs presents additional challenges. Those with families and mortgages may have already taken on one or two other low-paying jobs to help their families survive, Johnson noted. Paid apprenticeships can help, but families may still need funding to help through the transition. On the other end of the spectrum are the people who would lose public assistance if they earned more than a pittance.
âThere is a cliff involved when trying to work out,â Johnson said. Without subsidized housing, food assistance or other benefits, some families are left with only a tiny amount or even less than before. Policies need to be reformed, he said. âThis population of people is a missing workforce. “
Meanwhile, the vision of “Voltage Valley” will not magically turn into a field of dreams. Indeed, Lordstown Motors announced on June 8 that its electric pickup truck business would likely fail without another major injection of capital.
âWe are in a hyper-competitive environment. So say: âWe have available space and a desire to succeed; we’ll see how it goes ‘is not a success strategy,’ said Gallagher. The region will need to demonstrate good value propositions to investors. And speed to market matters. âOur ability to invest and get into income mode as quickly as possible is of critical importance. “
State policy is also sending a message as companies consider investments, BRITE’s Stockburger said. Recent legislation has supported utility and fossil fuel interests, discouraged the growth of renewables, and now threatens the growth of Ohio’s solar and wind industries.
“We need to make sure the government pulls out” so Ohio’s clean energy industries can thrive, Stockburger said. âWe make sure the playing field is level. “