Auto companies racing to meet electric future and replace workforce

Work weeks are long and exhausting for 28-year-old assembly line worker Jaylin Jones.

Eleven hours a day, sometimes six days a week, Jones and a few hundred other employees race to assemble Ford’s new pick-up truck called the Lightning.

“It’s always busy here,” says Jones, who spent years working on the gas-powered F-150 and recently retrained to work on its electric counterpart. “High demand, so we had to put them out.”

With so many customers placing initial orders for the Lightning, Ford hit its production capacity and stopped taking reservations for the time being. To meet the skyrocketing demand, the company is retraining many of its gas-powered assembly line workers and moving them to the electric plant, which Ford is currently expanding to double in size.

What was a niche option in the auto market a few years back, it is fast becoming the car of choice among many buyers. Car companies are shifting their resources to expand their electric fleets, a process that will significantly impact auto workers, from blue-collar workers to engineers who have spent their careers developing gas engines and transmissions. dedicated to.

“I’m concerned about how we get enough people here, how we train them thoroughly,” says Chris Skaggs, who is in charge of scaling up operations at Ford’s electric plant. “Some people pick it up faster, some people pick it up a little slower.”

Building an electric car means fewer parts, more automation, and a variety of engineers.

New registrations for electric vehicles in the United States have increased by more than 250% over the past five years, according to credit-reporting company Experian. In China, electric-car sales nearly tripled last year to 3.3 million, according to the International Energy Agency, nearly half of the global total. Some states, such as California and New York, have announced plans to phase out gas cars by 2035.

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These vehicles have fewer parts, and will eventually require fewer workers to manufacture them. On top of that, the auto industry has been moving towards increased automation over the years.

They are also, essentially, computers on wheels. It will be a challenge to retrain auto engineers who have now developed expertise in gas engines and classic transmissions to work on these new types of cars, which auto companies cannot take up.

“With the pace we need to move forward and the expertise we need, we probably don’t have the time it will take to do all of the re-skilling,” says Craig Dewald, Ford’s chief learning officer. “We are strategic about going out and bringing in key talent.”

Electric vehicles require millions more lines of code than their gas-powered counterparts and analysts agree that few are better equipped to work on them than software engineers. The problem is, there are very few and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the shortfall is expected to increase to about 1.2 million by 2026.

“There will be layoffs because different types of workers are needed,” says Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Cox Automotive. “Software engineers are extremely important in EV.”

Trying to find talent in universities and looking far

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Universities that were once a reliable pipeline for talent to the American auto industry must change as well.

“Some of the big universities are recognizing that they are behind,” says Ford’s Dewald. “They’ve got to catch up and they’ve really got their own learning to come along and stay relevant in the way the world is changing.”

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At the University of Michigan’s auto engineering department, last year not a single student signed up for a course on automatic transmissions, a class that normally attracted 80 or more students a few years ago.

The university is offering more courses for electrification and battery-powered systems, but it is struggling to find instructors for some of the required courses.

“We couldn’t find anyone who was teaching systems engineering for software, and that’s the main issue,” says Arthur Hyde, director of the Automotive Engineering Program at the University of Michigan.

Both universities and companies are looking for talent far and wide to address this growing problem. A growing number of students in Hyde’s classes are from China and India, a talent pool American automakers are also tapping into.

“Most companies I know have engineering centers in India that do nothing but write software,” says Hyde, a former Ford engineer. “It’s like an assembly line.”

‘Changes are mess’

Gas cars are still the major money maker for the auto industry. Rising demand for Ford’s new electric Lightning hasn’t made a dent in sales of the classic F-150, which still rolls off the assembly line every 53 seconds.

Companies will hire software engineers and gradually lay off others who have long worked on gas-powered cars, as Ford did last month when it laid off 3,000 white-collar workers.

“Changes are messy, they’re vague and as a part of this change, we have to watch everything we do at every function,” says Jennifer Waldo, chief people and employee experience officer. “Look at Kodak. They had a lot of products in the beginning and just missed it. We’ve learned a lot from those lessons.”

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And so the race continues. Not only to reach the electric future, but to find the right mind to get there.