Photo by Isaac Constans Photo by Isaac Constans

The US wants electric vehicles to be half of new auto sales by 2030. Here’s how Michigan is preparing.

AUBURN HILLS, Mich.—Auto manufacturers are hiring for a new fleet of positions. 

These jobs—battery systems engineers focusing on e-mobility, ADAS/AS software engineers, and hybrid and electric vehicle technicians—weren’t common on assembly lines in years past, but they’re real gigs in demand now in Michigan. 

Those are actual openings at FEV, an automotive systems developer with its North American headquarters in Auburn Hills. 

“The industries have changed and electric vehicle and fuel cell solutions have come to the forefront,” John Zelasko, FEV vice president of business development for North America, said.

Just ask engineers and they’ll tell you: Electric vehicles are totally different machines than conventional cars.

Most employees at FEV began working with internal combustion engines. Zelasko, back in his engineering days, started off that way, focusing on diesel engine development. As Zelasko moved to business development, many of his colleagues transitioned to electric vehicles.

That’s not an uncommon story in the world of auto manufacturing. And it’s about to become a whole lot more widespread.

The Push to Go Electric

By 2030, the US and auto manufacturers want half of all new vehicle sales to be electric, as unveiled last week at Oakland University in Rochester Hills, Michigan. 

As part of a roundtable event, panelists paid homage to the birthplace of the mass-produced automobile while laying the bricks for the next stage of US car production. Energy Secretary and former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm moderated the discussion and made the big announcement.

Auto manufacturers have said they’re on board with the executive order, which formally sets the 2030 goal.

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“We should be building that whole supplies and guts in the United States, and Michigan is primed to lead it all,” Granholm said. 

The discussion took place as the Senate debated a massive infrastructure package, which passed with support from both parties and will provide the funding for electric charging systems among many other projects. Michigan will see money go to its roads, rails and grid thanks to the legislation.

To meet the 2030 sales goal and realize the gains of electric vehicles, those positions—ADAS/AS software engineer and all—need to be filled. And for that to happen on a macro level, training pipelines need to be in place.

Building Training Pipelines

On the ground, universities and manufacturers are figuring out what students and mid-career professionals need to transition to electric vehicles.

“We need to learn from history basically. In terms of when new technology comes, it’s going to displace a lot of people out of their jobs,” Louay Chamra, dean of Oakland University’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, said. “So we need to train them.”

A melting pot of students and mid-career professionals, Oakland University is specifically designing training courses for engineers to get into the electric vehicles business. These courses aren’t only for students. Often, training happens while on the job, like for many long-time employees at FEV.

Chamra has an industry advisory panel that tells him specifically what they need for people to fill jobs, including in the electric vehicle space.

With that knowledge in hand, Oakland launched a six-week training course last year for electric vehicles that mid-career auto engineers attended. Quickly, the program filled up. So did the second and third reinstallments.

“We had so much demand, we had a waiting list to get into the class,” Chamra said.

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Keeping It in Michigan

Ninety-eight percent of graduates from Oakland’s School of Engineering and Computer Science get jobs. Almost all stay in state.

Many companies also have their own training—formal and informal. While that’s doable for large companies, Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) said it can be a struggle for smaller ones. Grants are a big part of making training available through public-private partnerships, she said.

Granholm said investment in community colleges and apprenticeship programs would help fill these voids too, especially with union participation.

The UAW, which is the union representing US auto workers, expressed support for the executive order and infrastructure bill. 

“[The] announcement on emissions standards brings more certainty and better planning for the auto industry and UAW member future jobs,” UAW president Ray Curry said. 

Semiconductor Shortage

In the immediate term, electric vehicles aren’t top of mind for most Michigan auto workers. Semiconductors are on hold, and so are peoples’ jobs. General Motors employees in Flint and Lansing are shut out of plants as they await new shipments from overseas. 

The recent stoppage tests the relationship between Michigan auto workers and their employers. In the 2000s, the auto industry caved, dropping from over 300,000 jobs to finally falling below 200,000 in 2010. And though the industry has rebounded, Michiganders have been no strangers to plant closures since.

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Granholm said semiconductors are worth factoring in. Those too, if built in the US, could streamline operations, cut costs and prevent work stoppages.

“What happened in 2008 and 2009 should never happen again,” Chamra said about the auto industry’s economic collapse. 

By plugging electric vehicles into the equation, lawmakers and manufacturers are hoping they’ve found the missing variable: one that solves for both jobs and the economy, too.

“It is a call to action for everyone,” Stevens said. “It is something we can all connect into.”

Michigan is already a top state for clean energy and electric battery building. In fact, Michigan produces one-third of North America’s electric vehicle batteries.

Prior to COVID-19, the clean energy sector employed 126,000 Michiganders. Granholm, who carried the clean energy flag as governor, is confident that her home state is poised to lead the charge on electric vehicles.

“Why is it exciting for Michigan? Because we build those cars, and we build the best of those cars,” Granholm said.