Electrifying the Workforce Takes Training

LORDSTOWN – The prospect of this region becoming Voltage Valley is electrifying the business world, attracting engineers, technicians and other highly paid workers.

Between the two electrical vehicle industry startups that will open in Lordstown – Ultium Cells LLC and Lordstown Motors Corp. – thousands will be hired.

Chris Allen, a talent acquisition specialist with Ultium Cells, the joint venture between General Motors and Korea-based LG Chem, is already at work. Ultium will manufacture battery cells for GM’s fleet of electric vehicles beginning in mid-2022 — bringing on more than 1,100 employees once production begins.

Allen, a 28-year veteran of human resources, says working for a company so open to hiring and then training entry-level and less experienced employees is new to him.

“This is going to be the most state-of-the-art battery cell manufacturing plant in the U.S., I might say in the world, for the technology that it’s going to use,” he says.

Allen uses his relationships on the Youngstown State University campus, facilitating and implementing Ultium Cells’ agenda in YSU classroom settings.

He procures prospects from places such as YSU’s College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and the Williamson College of Business Administration. The Society for Women Engineers and Society for Human Resource Management provide leads as well.

Allen says Ultium has been focusing on more entry-level and three-to-five year engineering candidates. It has accumulated a significant database of employees since the beginning of the year and is also eyeing recent college graduates.

He had seven YSU graduates in a mid-March training session at Williamson College.

“We’ve had pretty good luck and pretty good focus on the greater Youngstown area and YSU as a whole,” he adds.

Allen says he looks for graduates who maintained at least a 3.0 GPA, which shows diligence toward classes and who are also able to multitask schoolwork and outside employment. Depending on previous internships and work experience, those incoming prospects could start “anywhere from $52,000 to $60,000 a year.”

Brite Energy Innovators work with at least a dozen companies wanting to locate in the region, either in manufacturing or as part of the electric vehicle supply chain.

Sara Daugherty, director of partnership for Brite, says “It’s really empowering just to think that the Ultium cell pack will be across GM’s portfolio.”

The influx of new high-paying jobs means people are moving into this portion of Ohio and bringing a much needed financial boom. Those jobs also result in corporations providing leadership and spurring civic engagement, she notes.

“It’s very exciting to have leadership of such large ventures in our backyard and that’s going to be instrumental in rebuilding some of the civil society that we’ve lost over the last 30 to 40 years,” Daugherty says.

Ultium Cells and Lordstown Motors, a company that plans to manufacture electric pickup trucks, are not alone.

Companies like Thomas Steel Strip, a subdivision of Tata Steel, announced March 18 that it will add 42 positions and invest $8.5 million at its Warren plant to support the company’s entry into the rechargeable battery market.

Multi-year training programs for mechanical and electrical engineering at Eastern Gateway Community College and YSU, as well as materials handling training programs are critical for these companies to succeed.

Internships and co-op programs often lead to full-time employment for graduates, says Wim F.A. Steelant, dean of the YSU STEM college and professor of chemistry.

Area employers provide materials for student-led projects, he says.

Company feedback on student performance is used in making updates to academic curriculum, Steelant says. Each department has an industrial advisory board.

Sherri Hrusovski, director of YSU’s STEM professional services, says her college started a job fair with the Williamson College in 2012 and it has grown from 20 employers recruiting students and alumni to more than 100 just prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

This year’s virtual fair attracted 48 companies. Representatives from the companies met with prospective students one-on-one or in group sessions.

Hrusovski says engineering students average $14 to 15 an hour, but can make anywhere from $10 to $25 an hour on their internships and co-op opportunities.

“You have to remember small, medium and large companies all pay different [wages],” she says.

The STEM program has worked with a variety of local companies such as Dearing Compressor and Pump Co., Vallourec and City Machine Technologies, Hrusovski says. Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC has an interest in these students, as well.

Alexa Sweeney Blackann, president of Sweeney, says her company is preparing for the full electric fleet of vehicles and eliminating tailpipe emissions from new light-duty vehicles by 2035, when GM will go all-electric.

“We thought we would dip our toe into this,” Sweeney says. “We’ve never done a STEM expo before.”

She is looking to hire an electrification specialist at her Chevy and Buick GMC dealerships in Boardman this year, educating customers on the electric vehicle experience.

Sweeney combustion automotive technicians currently come from Mahoning County Career & Technical Center through a partnership. Techs also earn a two-year associate degree at Stark State College in Canton with the Sweeney company paying the tuition.

She adds she’s reviewed the average starting salary of these YSU graduates, and feels comfortable in paying that wage.

Sweeney works with human resources associate Kaitlyn Leonelli on recruiting talent through the YSU STEM program.

The focus, she says, is keeping people from the Mahoning Valley employed here, avoiding the brain drain.

“Keeping kids in the Valley is important for all of our quality of life,” Sweeney says.

To that end, Eastern Gateway’s forthcoming programmable logic controller program will align with training at Ultium, says Arthur Daly, senior vice president and chief development officer of the school.

Programmable logic controllers, or PLCs, are industrial computer control systems.

EGCC is working with Mitsubishi to develop the program, Daly says.

Students will earn a technical certificate and will be qualified to work at advanced manufacturing plants such as Ultium.

That and other electrical, electromechanical engineering and PLC programs coming to EGCC are state-funded, Daly says.

Industrial maintenance is another area where jobs will be opening up.

Daly says the new Excellence Training Center on the southern base of YSU’s campus, which is expected to begin operations this spring, will teach workers how to adjust, calibrate, maintain and repair equipment.

EGCC, America Makes, the Youngstown Business Incubator, Choffin Career Center, Youngstown City Schools and the Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana county career and technical centers have partnered with YSU on the Excellence Training Center.

“We’re all dialed in this together,” Daly says.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.