As the site operations director for Ultium Cells LLC in Lordstown, Ohio, Tom Gallagher’s responsibilities include hiring 1,000 technicians to produce electric vehicle battery cells in the $2.3 billion plant that is under construction.
When the company begins production in mid-2022 Gallagher said it will employ
- battery cell technicians who will operate all aspects of battery cell manufacturing;
- quality technicians who will do analytical work to check incoming materials, production, and completed battery cells; and
- maintenance technicians who will carry out electrical and mechanical tasks to maintain equipment and processes.
Most interesting to technical educators may be Ultium’s plan to utilize “an apprentice-type format” to educate technicians in-house. He would like technicians to have technical competency, which he defines as “application of STEM-based skills in industrial environments as well as critical thinking and the ability to work in a team environment.”
While math and science knowledge is important, Gallagher said he is most interested in how people apply their math skills in tandem with their willingness to learn, their capacity to think critically, and their personal history of collaboration. He said the company is looking for people who “collaborate, communicate, and collectively drive problem-solving.”
Ultium, which is a partnership of General Motors (GM) and LG Chem, is working with the new Center for Workforce Education and Innovation at Youngstown State University (YSU) to recruit applicants from Youngstown and Warren, two urban areas that have been struggling economically since large steelmakers exited in the late 1970s.
According to a university press release YSU is developing an Energy Storage and Innovation Training Center, with $1 million from the U.S. Department of Energy, and a Virtual Career Fair in partnership with Ultium and JobsOhio, the state’s economic development entity, “to serve as a one-stop-destination to connect the community with in-demand career pathways, training and jobs.” YSU and Eastern Gateway Community College are ramping up programs to prepare technicians to meet Ultium’s needs.
During a recent interview via Zoom, Gallagher said he wants to create a “diverse and inclusive cross-functional environment that values communication.” He said the company is open to applicants for technician positions who are able to show their leadership skills in other employment settings, such as retail, and teamwork through their community activities.
Ultium’s building of its workforce from scratch, Gallagher explained, “is less about the technology and more about the role of team member in supporting the process.”
This, he said, is because success in the new, high-tech facility depends upon collaboration: “It is not an individual sport. It is very much a team sport. So it is a rare combination of some base technical competency, desire and quest to learn technically, and ability to apply that to technical problem-solving with supportive communication.”
The company’s focus on recruiting and training people who reside within a 40-mile radius of the facility is both an opportunity and challenge for residents of a region that has not experienced such a large-scale industrial investment in decades.
While there are other high-tech manufacturers in Northeast Ohio, Ultium’s massive size and introduction of battery cell manufacturing sets it apart. The 2.8 million-square-foot facility will utilize “unique control systems that are relatively different than other parts of industry in the Midwest,” Gallagher said.
He emphasized that technicians will be expected to do work that is “very mentally challenging, but not physically challenging.”
This reality is pushing a cultural shift among the general population and experienced technicians for whom manufacturing employment was usually tied to physical strength. That is not the case with Ultium’s highly automated battery cell manufacturing.
Gallagher said, “There is very little physical demand on the person to make the product. It is all driven from mental perspectives. In other words the equipment provides the processes and motion to make the battery cell. People don’t have to move material, or handle or touch it. The equipment does that. As a technician we’re accountable to set up the equipment, do our quality checks, maintain it in operating mode, and then trouble shoot it and provide problem solving in complex situations. So the competencies associated with that are quite different from someone who worked in a Tier 2 supplier in vehicle assembly, or someone who works in a casting or steel plant.”
Ultium has begun developing its workforce by educating “a launch technical team” that this spring received two weeks of training in Ohio, then five weeks of hands-on lessons with battery cell production at LG Chem’s facility in Holland, Michigan, followed by more remote and face-to-face instruction in Ohio. The company is paying team members’ salaries and travel expenses as they learn Ultium’s manufacturing systems and how to collaborate with other teams of yet-to-be-hired technicians.
Gallagher said the company “will invest in people who commit to learning” and “demonstrate results with the right behaviors.”
“We’re really saying, we are going to challenge you mentally for your ability to assess a situation, apply problem-solving, do analytical work, and then collaborate with others to solve problems,” he said.