EV manufacturing will not spell doom for factory jobs

About 135,000 people making conventional engines and transmissions today are at risk

There is growing fear these days that the move to electric vehicles spells certain doom for a lot of low-skilled factory work. It mostly comes from the prediction, by Volkswagen chief executive Herbert Diess two years ago, that EVs will require 30 per cent less labour than gas guzzlers. He’s not alone, either.

Great change often brings pain, but how much? Certainly, the 135,000 people making engines and transmissions today are at risk. Engines require big metal castings, many more parts, and much more labour to build than electric motors and batteries, said manufacturing guru Sandy Munro of Munro and Associates. Electric motors require fewer workers and smaller factories, he said. Since those workers make up 20 per cent of auto labourers, that is the biggest part of what will get cut.

What about assembly workers? General Motors closed the Lordstown, Ohio assembly plant and cut or transferred more than 3,000 workers. Nearby, GM is building a battery plant that will employ one third as many, at lower pay. That means assemblers are doomed, right? Not really. Lordstown was closed because the plant made small cars that are no longer popular.

Elsewhere, GM’s $30 billion push into EVs means adding assembly jobs. The automaker will open its once-idle Detroit-Hamtramck plant next week to make the Hummer EV and Chevrolet Silverado electric pick-ups, plus the Cruise Origin autonomous shuttle. That plant had 1,200 workers when it was threatened with closure in 2019 – it will have double that in two years. The former Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, will be making the Cadillac Lyriq and other electric models, adding workers along the way.

All in, United Auto Workers Vice President Terry Dittes said that the union is gaining assembly jobs as automakers prepare for a decade or more in which consumers will buy both internal combustion and electric vehicles.

At its investor presentation on October 6, GM showed a graph with about 40 vehicles for sale by its four brands today, with just a couple being EVs. By 2030, the company will offer 50 models for sale and more than half will be battery-powered. GM will need workers to build both of them.

There also will be opportunities for new workers with or without college degrees to work in an industry that never needed them until now. Ford and battery maker SK Innovation will build three US battery factories and an assembly plant, adding 11,000 workers. GM and partner LG Chem will build four battery plants, hiring 1,200 people each at its Ultium Cells joint venture.

Rana Abuhashim, a young chemical engineer who grew up near Lordstown in Youngstown, was working for Goodyear Tire and Rubber in Oklahoma. She has taken her skills and returned home for a job that did not exist six months ago. “It brought me back to Youngstown,” she said.

It might offer something similar for lesser-skilled workers, too. Few people have experience making battery cells. GM has enlisted Youngstown State University to find and train new workers. Most of them will be younger employees who may not have college degrees, but they do have some computer and analytical skills. Ultium is not really seeking experience in physical labour.

There is a question about how much money these workers will earn. Ultium says $16 to $22 an hour. Dittes plans to try to get the UAW into the plant and raise the pay. GM will not oppose the union, so it will become a matter of bargaining for something closer to the $32 an hour that senior union workers get now. Ford and SK will probably be in a similar situation. Even if there is a fight about pay, the jobs will be there.

Updated: November 13th 2021, 5:30 AM