Ohio’s ‘Voltage Valley’ looks to develop EV workforce


Auto industry jobs are returning to Ohio’s Mahoning Valley with the growth of a fledgling electric vehicle manufacturing cluster.

Now, local leaders are taking steps to make sure there will be enough qualified workers to fill those new positions.

Youngstown State University is hosting a virtual job fair Wednesday for the region’s emerging electric vehicle, energy storage and other tech companies, 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 only to Michigan in jobs making automotive parts and third nationwide in jobs for manufacturing motor vehicles. Some jobs in the electric vehicle industry will resemble those for fuel-powered cars. Others will be dramatically different.

“There is not repetitive work in our environment,” said Tom Gallagher, chief operating officer at Ultium Cells, a joint venture of General Motors and LG Energy Solution, which is set to open a battery factory in Warren next year. He spoke at a June 7 panel that was part of Green Energy Ohio’s 2021 Electric Vehicle Tour. 

Executive Director Jane Harf of Green Energy Ohio logged about 800 miles in this Polestar for Green Energy Ohio’s 2021 Electric Vehicle Tour around the state. Credit: Wendy K. Johnson / Courtesy

Work with raw materials at the front end of the process requires an understanding of chemistry. Battery assembly will take place in an automated clean-room environment. Gallagher said the company is seeking employees who can work with programmable logic controllers and handle troubleshooting and other aspects of automation. That demands skills in STEM fields — science, engineering, technology and math.

“You may not necessarily need an advanced degree, but you need more than a high school diploma,” said Jennifer Oddo, who heads Youngstown State University’s division of workforce education and innovation. In January, the Department of Energy announced a $1 million project to help Youngstown State and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory set up an energy storage workforce training center. Labor unions also will play a role.

“The IBEW is really excited to be part of this transition to green energy,” said longtime Local 573 member Dave Bush. The union already has apprenticeships for work in solar, wind and other clean energy fields. As the electric vehicle industry grows in the area, more apprenticeship opportunities will be available, he said.

The Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce is actively recruiting more companies in the supply chain. BRITE Energy Innovators has a growing e-mobility practice. And auto parts maker Aptiv has an electric vehicle charging research center in the area.

Inside the labs at BRITE Energy Innovators in Warren, Ohio.

History of innovation, and loss

“Historically, we’ve made stuff here,” said Rick Stockburger, president and CEO at BRITE Energy Innovators. “We’ve been innovating and creating here for a long time.”

The first Packard automobile rolled onto Warren’s streets in 1899. The state has a long history in electric vehicles as well, including Cleveland’s Baker electric cars and Toledo’s Millburn Light Electric vehicles.

“Up until probably 1911 or so, 80% of all the cars on the road were either electric or steam,” said John Lutsch, program and marketing manager for the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum in Cleveland. “Just like today, you could simply push a button and go.”

Gasoline-powered cars became dominant only after a plunge in the price of gasoline, the debut of the electric starter to replace the hand crank, and various other innovations that would spawn an industry that employed thousands in Michigan and Ohio.

“I was born around the time the steel mills started closing, and things were basically on a decline,” said Todd Johnson, pastor at Warren’s historic Second Baptist Church, who moderated the Green Energy Ohio panel. “Quite frankly, that’s probably affected the mentality and the outlook and even the verbiage in the way we talk about the valley. We’ve probably talked more about what we’ve lost, as opposed to what initiatives or opportunities might be a gain to us.”

Starting in 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Jones and Laughlin, and U.S. Steel shut down steel plants. The next two decades also brought layoffs and other woes to the auto industry. The Big Three automakers’ financial woes came to a head in the first decade of this century. Despite a federal bailout and millions in state tax incentives, GM closed its Lordstown Cruze plant in 2019. All those developments had ripple effects throughout the area.

Poverty rates for Trumbull and Mahoning counties before the COVID-19 pandemic began were about 15% and 18%, respectively. As of April, corresponding unemployment rates were 6.7% and 6.8%, putting them in the top four counties statewide.  

Pastor Todd Johnson of Warren’s Second Baptist Church, standing at left, moderated a panel on Voltage Valley jobs and workforce development as part of Green Energy Ohio’s 2021 Electric Vehicle Tour. The panelists, from left to right, are Sarah Boyarko, chief operating officer of Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce; Tom Gallagher, chief operating officer of Ultium Cells; Jennifer Oddo, executive director of Youngstown State University’s division of workforce education and innovation; and Dave Bush, IBEW Local 573 representative and electrician. Credit: BRITE Energy Innovators / Courtesy

Bridging skills gaps

In addition to local colleges, Mahoning Valley’s location near major thoroughfares puts it within an hour of universities in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Akron. But problems remain in recruiting.

“The workforce that I’m being presented does not reflect that of the community that resides here,” Ultium Cells’ Gallagher said, noting that he faces a lack of African American, Hispanic and women candidates. “I need to change what I’m doing to attract them.”

One problem is a skills gap. Another problem is that many young adults “don’t see the hope of what our parents experienced 50 years ago,” Johnson said.

“The digital divide is real, along with race and socioeconomic lines,” Johnson said. About 95% of teens nationwide have access to a smartphone. Yet many teens and adults in his community don’t know the basics for “productive” use of technology, such as attaching a resume to an email.

Many skills still need to be taught, Youngstown State’s Oddo said. “We’re going to be offering some free industry certifications for our youth who are interested in the jobs, for those who need just a little bit more technology experience and exposure to gain those digital skills.”

Training for people who already lost good-paying jobs presents added challenges. Those with families and mortgages may already have taken one or two other low-pay jobs to help their families survive, Johnson noted. Paid apprenticeships can help, but families may still need funding to help through the transition. At the other end of the spectrum are people who would lose public assistance if they earned more than a menial wage.

“There’s a cliff involved when you do try to work,” Johnson said. Without subsidized housing, food assistance or other benefits, some families wind with only a tiny amount or even less than before. Policies need to be reformed, he said. “This population of people are a missing workforce.”

Meanwhile, the vision for “Voltage Valley” won’t magically transform into a field of dreams. Indeed, Lordstown Motors announced June 8 that its electric pickup truck business will likely fail without another major infusion of capital.

“We’re in a hyper-competitive environment. So to say, ‘We have available space and a desire to want to succeed; we’ll see how it goes’ is not a strategy for success,” Gallagher said. The region will have to demonstrate good value propositions to investors. And speed to market matters. “Our abilities to make investments and go to revenue mode as quickly as possible are critically important.”

State policy also sends a message as companies consider investments, BRITE’s Stockburger said. Recent legislative moves supported utilities and fossil fuel interests, discouraged renewable energy growth, and now threaten further growth in Ohio’s solar and wind industries.

“We need to make sure that government gets out of the way” so that Ohio’s clean energy industries can flourish, Stockburger said. “We make sure that the playing field is level.”

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