Voltage Valley Supply Chain Already Growing Ahead of Plant Openings

WARREN, Ohio – Although the plants that serve as the driving force behind the Voltage Valley effort aren’t yet manufacturing their products, the ecosystem around them is already springing up.

The Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber is aiding 11 companies in the electric vehicle supply chain that “could result in an additional several thousand new jobs beyond what has already been announced in our market,” said Sarah Boyarko, chief operating officer for the chamber. Eight of those companies are “potential suppliers” for the Ultium Cells battery plant, while three would support Lordstown Motors Co.

“As we work with those companies on site selection and due diligence, one thing that’s different on the EV side is that they’re well ahead of the game,” she continued. “They want to coordinate timing with the companies they’d be supplying should they end up with a work contract.”

Boyarko was among the four panelists discussing the supply chain and workforce needs to support the burgeoning EV sector in the Mahoning Valley. The panel discussion, held at Brite Energy Innovators in downtown Warren, was part of Green Energy Ohio’s four-day, 26-site Electric Vehicle Tour across the state to highlight how the industry is affecting and benefiting Ohio.

Also participating were Jennifer Oddo, executive director of Youngstown State University’s division of workforce education and innovation; Tom Gallagher, Ultium chief operating officer; and David Bush Jr. of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 573.

To further develop the supply chain, Boyarko said, the Regional Chamber is working with TeamNEO and JobsOhio to find more potential suppliers from South Korea, where Ultium co-parent company LG Chem is based. 

And at Youngstown State, a grant from the Department of Energy will see the university partnering with Brite and Oak Ridge National Laboratory to conduct a regional workshop to better understand the developing supply network around the Voltage Valley effort, Oddo said, as well as to conduct a national study.

“We can show the strength of Ohio and of Voltage Valley to position ourselves for a national training and innovation center that can serve our community and show the world that we really are the Voltage Valley,” she said. “We recognize that with Ultium Cells and Lordstown Motors and the awesome ecosystem in our region and in Ohio, we have an opportunity to seize the moment. We know there’s an industry emerging here that can bring thousands of jobs. We need to seize this with a national reach.”

The supply chain for the two factories will stretch well beyond the companies directly providing products to them, Boyarko and Bush agreed. In February 2020, the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber hosted a pair of procurement events for companies interested in working with Lordstown Motors. Split over two days, one event was focused on companies that could provide services.

“We are actively working with many companies locally,” Boyarko said. “It’s not just the products, but the services that go along with their products and investments. That’s a big opportunity for a lot of our existing companies.”

Then, there are the places that could get a boost in business from the employees working for the manufacturers. Bush pointed to Ross’ Eatery in Lordstown, which for decades was a frequent stop for autoworkers at the former GM Lordstown Assembly Complex.

“Ultium’s a godsend for them. That [supply] chain also includes restaurants and gas stations because you have people working who can swing by for their morning coffee,” he said. “The local unions and skilled trades see more because there are outages and things that need replaced or updated. All your local businesses improve with the Voltage Valley development.”

In developing the area into a national hub for electric vehicles, the second crucial element is the workforce. Ultium has been “partnering closely” with YSU and Eastern Gateway Community College,” Gallagher said, to develop the curricula to prepare students for jobs in the sector.

“The work is quite different in the battery cell business from that of other parts of industrial manufacturing, including the automotive supply sector,” he said. “It begins with a chemistry process as we’re handling and mixing raw materials. It’s working to a specific recipe, so the attributes there are following work instructions and certain STEM skills. … In cell assembly, we move to higher levels of automation with cell handling and movement.”

With the upcoming opening of YSU’s Excellence Training Center at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Commerce Street, local partners will be able to provide training and certifications for in-demand careers – including those working with electric vehicles.

“We know that a lot of these ‘new collar’ jobs that are coming to the area don’t necessarily need an advanced degree, but they need more than a high school diploma. Industry 4.0 is an interesting area where technology is at the heart of these jobs,” Oddo said. “Our talent is our supply chain and it’s one of the most important that will help us scale this industry and scale up our region.”

One of the challenges noted by Bush, Gallagher and Oddo is getting new people into the field. While there’s excitement around the development of the Valley as an EV hub, that hasn’t necessarily translated into a workforce ready to go into the field. 

“We’re going through this great reassessment of what jobs are out there. This is a great opportunity for our valley because we have so many great mid-level jobs coming through Voltage Valley,” Oddo said. “We need to do more to cast a wider net to attract people to this community.”

In his work with the IBEW talking to high school and college students, Bush said he often pitches the fact that the electrical field is quickly innovating. 

“I’ve been in the trade 18 years and every month I hear about new materials and technologies that I can’t wait to get my hands on. If you like science, math, building things – the skilled trades are the way to go.” he said. “There are exciting, emerging technologies that are coming up, which means you’ll never get bored with what you do.”

And at Ultium, Gallagher said one of the things that concerns him most is the lack of diversity in applicants. The pool of people seeking work at the battery plant doesn’t reflect the community as a whole, which can put Ultium at a disadvantage for long-term success.

“It’s unfortunate and it’s changing my approach to how we direct our opportunities to the community,” he said. “I need more African American candidates. I need more Hispanic candidates. I need more women candidates. I have to change what we’re doing to attract those workers because that’s a space in manufacturing that’s important to fill. Inclusion is a strategy for success and companies that do it well are at an advantage from a workforce perspective.”

Pictured: Participating in Green Energy Ohio’s panel discussion at Brite Energy Innovators are Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber chief operating officer Sarah Boyarko, Ultium Cells chief operating officer Tom Gallagher, director of YSU’s division of workforce education and innovation Jennifer Oddo and IBEW Local 573 member David Bush Jr.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.