The auto workers of the future

Ford ‘jolted’ the auto industry this week, announcing an $11.4 billion investment in new production sites in Kentucky and Tennessee that will build electric vehicles and the batteries that power them at a massive scale.

And you could say the announcement jolted those two states’ college and workforce systems. Both Kentucky and Tennessee are stepping up with multi-million dollar investments in worker retraining and upskilling.

The new Ford megacampus near Memphis, in Stanton, Tenn., is expected to create 6,000 jobs between the automaker and SK Innovation, a South Korean battery cell supplier and Ford’s partner in the venture. A similarly large complex in Glendale, Ky., will create 5,000 jobs. Many of those roles will require training that the two regions’ workers don’t already have.

The workforce potential, nevertheless, was a major sell for the company, Bill Ford, executive chair, told NBC Nightly News.

“The one thing that also attracted us to both Tennessee and Kentucky is the workforce,” Ford said. “They both have really good workforces and are willing to be trained to do these jobs and that was a big consideration.”

The big idea: Ford’s new venture will be one of the first test cases for what green jobs may look like at a large scale. It’s a big play in what The Economist dubbed the “race to electrify” between America’s automotive giants, General Motors and Ford. For its part, GM this spring announced a $2.3 billion investment in its second battery production facility in the United States, also in Tennessee. GM’s first such facility is under construction in Ohio.

As a federal infrastructure bill and the more comprehensive ‘Build Back Better’ plan hit snags in Congress this week, Ford’s latest move is a reminder that major companies are nevertheless pressing ahead. And they will need appropriately-trained workers.

Finding them remains a big challenge for the manufacturing industry writ large, said Gardner Carrick, vice president for strategic initiatives for the Manufacturing Institute at the National Association of Manufacturers. “They’re going to need thousands of workers who are going to be able to work hand-in-hand with highly automated systems,” he said.

And while they are ‘green jobs,’ Carrick said, the roles are fundamentally like other ones in advanced manufacturing. “The result is you’ve got thousands of new job openings with an ever-increasingly complex skill set.”

And the only way to fill all of them, he said, will be with an intentional focus on development and training.

States Step In

The Hernando de Soto Bridge in Memphis. (Terrance Raper/Unsplash)

The details: Both Kentucky and Tennessee are promising major support for Ford when it comes to training, along with other big ticket incentives.

In Kentucky, the state will provide training for the new Ford jobs worth up to $50 million through the Kentucky Community and Technical College System and the Bluegrass State Skills Corp. Funding legislation, passed in the days before the deal was made public, outlines:

  • $25 million to the college system to build a state-of-the-art training facility on Ford’s new production campus
  • $5 million for the system to provide worker training
  • $20 million for the skills corporation to provide additional training grants

It’s still early days, and specific details about the training programs are yet to be worked out, said Juston Pate, president and CEO of Elizabethtown Community and Technical College, which is near the new Ford site and will be taking the lead for the system.

“The site development will be a complete collaboration,” he said. “We’ll really take a look at the training needs of Ford and SK Innovation, and also will be looking at regional training for ancillary businesses that will arise.”

Tennessee also announced it will be creating a joint training site—a new Tennessee College of Applied Technology—in concert with Ford and SK Innovation. The college at the manufacturing megasite, dubbed Blue Oval City, will join 27 other such campuses across the state that award certificates and diplomas in applied fields. 

It will be the first of those colleges to be developed in partnership with a specific company, though the college system runs training sites at other major employers, such as the Nissan manufacturing plant in Smyrna, Tenn. The new college will provide customized training focused on electric vehicle and battery manufacturing and repair, with a particular focus on mechatronics engineering and automechanics.

“This unique partnership with Ford and SK Innovation will enable Tennesseans to skill up and meet the specific employment demands of Blue Oval City,” Gov. Bill Lee said in announcing the new technical college. “Tennessee stands ready to provide a twenty-first century workforce.”

Beyond the new production plants, Ford also announced it will be investing $525 million nationwide, including $90 million in Texas, to train or retrain technicians to work on electric vehicles.

‘A culture changer’

I-65 in central Kentucky near Bowling Green. (David Barajas/Unsplash)

On the ground: In Glendale and the surrounding area in central Kentucky, the new Ford megacampus stands to have an enormous footprint. Glendale is an unincorporated community with fewer than 2,000 residents an hour south of Louisville. Its much larger neighbor, Elizabethtown, is still only home to about 31,000 people.

“You’ve heard this phrase over and over—but I think it’s true in this case, it’s what we commonly refer to as a game changer,” said Pate, the president of Elizabethtown Community and Technical College. “It’s a culture changer, it’s an economic changer.”

There’s the impact of the 5,000 direct jobs, he said, but also the ones that will follow as other suppliers and businesses grow up on and around the Ford campus.

“This will come with a lot of growth, the new families that will be coming to the region, the churches, entertainment options, and new small businesses. It changes the landscape.”

Tapping expertise: For Kentucky as a whole—in particular, the central I-65 corridor from Louisville to Bowling Green—it helps cement the state’s standing in an industry it has long depended on. “We’re already a leader in advanced manufacturing, everything from jet engines to bowling balls,” said Kris Williams, chancellor of the community college system. And the state’s colleges have experience working with leading employers.

“While this is a huge investment, collectively our 16 colleges are doing this everyday at some level with businesses,” she said.

Williams points to the system’s partnership with Toyota as approaching the same depth that the new collaboration with Ford will require. The Kentucky colleges’ work with Toyota and the Manufacturing Institute’s Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education have garnered national attention as a model for how to better train workers for careers in advanced manufacturing of all kinds. Still, it’s not easy.

Parting thought: The institute’s Carrick said a long-term commitment to collaborating—to regularly reassessing and investing in training needs—is critical to the success of employer and college partnerships.

“That tends to happen well early on because of the excitement around the economic development,” he said, “but then there’s the on-going feeding that has to still happen.” 

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