The former steel region in eastern Ohio across the Pennsylvania border is moving forward with a new industry: electric vehicles. Leaders are pushing the region as Voltage Valley, largely anchored by an electric vehicle battery plant, and troubled electric truck upstart Lordstown Motors. Despite this uncertainty, efforts are moving forward with workforce training to supply both companies with the thousands of qualified employees they will need.
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The Bumpy Road to Voltage Valley
Lordstown Motors sparked hope in the Mahoning Valley when it bought GM’s former assembly plant that closed in 2019 and started converting it to make its battery-powered pickup truck, the Endurance.
The company let some investors, analysts and the media take a peek at the plant, with tours this week.
Upbeat employees clad in black Lordstown Motors t-shirts, stopped at predetermined spots inside the plant, like the stamping operation, where they press sheets of metal to make pieces for the cab, the paint shop, and the general assembly area where the finished cab is “married” to the chassis.
John Wood, director of general assembly, said he worked at this plant for years when it was still owned by GM.
“My last assignment with General Motors was to help close this place down. I’m ecstatic to be part of the team that’s going to reopen it,” Wood said.
The plant looks clean inside, but it’s unclear how close it is to producing trucks. For instance, one stop on the tour showed a prototype of the truck’s unique four-part motor system, where a motor is attached to each wheel hub. Floor space was cleared and painted in this area, but company officials said the actual motors are scheduled arrive at the plant in August, just a month before they expect to start production.
Lordstown Motors itself has cast doubt on its ability to start commercial production and start selling trucks. In just the past few weeks, the company revealed that it might not last a year without additional investments, and admitted it doesn’t have any firm purchase commitments for the Endurance.
Lordstown Motors’ founder and CEO Steve Burns, along with the chief financial officer, resigned. Most recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that five company executives sold off $8 million of stocks before its dismal first-quarter earnings report.
Lordstown Motors declined to talk about these problems on the tour.
As employees took visitors on test drives on a beta version of the Endurance, Lordstown police officer Brett Blank stood watching, unconcerned about the recent news.
“We’re excited, and honestly we can’t wait to see the future of this plant because it is the future of Lordstown,” Blank said. “And a lot of us have been [life-long] residents, and we’re depending on this plant to do well.”
Still Hope for Voltage Valley’s Future
Whatever happens with Lordstown Motors, business and political leaders still sound optimistic.
“Undoubtedly, the news coming out of Lordstown Motors is concerning,” said Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan, who represents the area. “It is important to remember that they are one piece of a larger movement transforming our region into what has been coined as Voltage Valley.”
Guy Coviello, president of the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce said he hopes Lordstown Motors generates the capital it needs to produce vehicles long-term, but noted that electric vehicle manufacturing is a competitive new industry. “Every time there is new technology, there will be multiple fits and starts,” he said. “This doesn’t change Voltage Valley.”
Coviello pointed to other major new investments coming in the area, like Ultium Cells, a joint venture of General Motors and LG Energy Solutions. Ultium is building a $2.3 billion battery plant in Lordstown that’s expected to open next year and hire 1,100 people.
When GM closed its Chevrolet plant, the loss of jobs was hard on the community, according to Lordstown’s fire chief Travis Eastham. He worked for 25 years at the former GM plant, removing dents and painting cars. Eastham is glad to hear about all the new jobs, but he still has some concerns.
“The last thing we want is a bunch of low-paying jobs with repeat turnover of people because no one wins in that one. It’s just not good for the area,” he said.
GM recently agreed to support unionization efforts at Ultium, after the United Auto Workers called on them to pay union wages at new joint venture battery plants.
The jobs there won’t be the same as the former assembly line jobs though, and Ultium will need to find enough qualified workers.
Getting the Workforce Ready
At a recent virtual job fair hosted by nearby Youngstown State University, Ultium’s COO Tom Gallagher introduced the battery cell they will be making at the plant, to the 89 people in attendance.
“This is what propels the vehicle. It is roughly 18 inches long, about four inches high. It has about four volts of power in this battery,” he explained. “You have hundreds of these in a vehicle. We’ll be making millions of these in Ohio.”
They need workers trained in their computer and chemical processes to make these cells, which is why Youngstown State received $5 million dollars from GM to develop workforce training.
“We know that the skills of today are going to require more than a high school diploma,” said Jennifer Oddo, the university’s director of Workforce Education and Innovation. “You’re coming into an environment where you’re working on computers. You have digital literacy skills. You’re working in a team environment where communication, collaboration is really critical to the success of your job.”
Youngstown State already has training courses and apprenticeships in areas like robotics and IT networks. It’s opening a new $22 million dollar workforce training center, funded by the state and federal governments, later this summer. Altogether, the university hopes to train 1,500 workers over the next 18 to 24 months in new types of manufacturing like electric batteries and vehicles, according to Oddo.
“These new jobs coming into these new industries, they’re going to pay a higher wage. They’re going to require an advanced skill,” she said. “So building training programs, building these apprenticeship models will really help us to ensure that we are building a sustainable community for the Mahoning Valley, for Voltage Valley.”
Still, it’s unclear whether the shaky position of Lordstown Motors is a concern for the whole industry, or is just a bump in the road for the region’s move toward a new electric vehicle future.