UAW Local 5960 member Kimberly Fuhr inspects a Chevrolet Bolt EV during production of the vehicle Thursday, May 6, 2021, at the General Motors Orion Assembly Plant in Orion, Michigan.

Steve Fecht for Chevrolet

In 2015, Marland “Lanny” Brown learned how to build an all-electric car.

A member of United Auto Workers Local 5960, he worked as an hourly employee General Motors Company for nearly 31 years, mostly at an auto assembly plant in Lake Orion, Michigan, when he joined a core team of 15 Local 5960 employees sent to GM’s Incheon, South Korea, facility to learn how to build the Chevrolet Bolt EV .

The Orion plant, which has been operating since 1983, began to transition from the production of various internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles to electric vehicles. After retraining, a popular term for upskilling, Brown and the team returned to Orion and over the course of several months taught about 1,000 other assemblers both the fine and big differences in assembling an electric car. Part of the change in worker responsibilities was related to retooling the body shop and engine line to accommodate components and manufacturing processes that differ from electric vehicles.

While much of assembling an electric car, Brown said, is similar to assembling an internal combustion engine — such as installing doors, windows, tires, brakes, seats and dashboards — the powertrain, which consists of the engine and transmission, is quite different. Instead of a gas-powered engine and a multi-speed transmission, there’s a lithium-ion battery mounted under the cab that powers a zero-emissions electric motor and a single-speed transmission. “Going into the engine lineup, we’re putting a power distribution unit in place of a carburetor,” Brown said, giving one example.

The first Bolts went into production in October 2016, marking GM’s first foray into an all-electric vehicle ( discontinued Chevy Volt was a plug-in hybrid), and well before the automaker announced in 2021 that it would produce only electric cars by 2035. However, for the next three years, the Orion plant also continued to build two ICE vehicles—the Chevy Sonic and the Buick Verano—before switching exclusively to the Bolt in 2020 and then adding the Bolt EUV (electric vehicle) in 2021.

In the industry, it’s called a slow build, said Jack Hund, launch manager at Orion, who has overseen the introduction of many new models at various GM plants during his 23 years with the company. “We’ve started to slowly put the Bolt on the pipeline,” he said, a process that could take up to a year while bugs are ironed out. “We know it won’t be smooth sailing the first time.”

“Gradually we built more and more [EV] units,” Hund said. “The people on the line are so used to the ICE cars that it took them a little while to get their arms and minds around them. There was a different set of skills that they had to apply to the EV,” such as learning the nuances of new torque tools to attach parts to the vehicle with a certain amount of pressure.

“Having been in the ICE environment my entire career, the big change is connecting the high-voltage electrical cables,” Brown said. He said special training is required for all assemblers on how to safely handle potentially dangerous compounds. In essence, “it takes more electricians than mechanics to build an electric car,” Brown said.

In addition to on-the-job retraining, GM provides some workers with a virtual component. “We have a system where you’re at a computer and you’re doing elements of the job [a prescribed] ” said Reuben Jones, plant manager at Orion. “They get mental reps that help them once they get on the line. Creating vehicles at the right level of quality and in a safe manner is extremely important. Virtual learning has taken things to another level. It saves time, it saves money, and it helps us get the product to market much faster.”

Another training program is held at GM Technical University (TCU) in nearby Warren, Michigan. The newly upgraded center houses manufacturing labs that simulate the steps along an assembly line, including robotics and sheet metal fabrication. In addition to this technical training, “we interweave what we now call human skills, which include listening, teamwork and critical thinking skills,” said Kimberly Dungy, head of global technology learning at TCU.

As the retraining of UAW workers continues amid the Big Three automakers’ steady shift to electric vehicles, there’s a related issue that worries the union. Because electric cars have fewer parts than cars with an ICE engine, then-Volkswagen Group CEO Herbert Diess said in 2019, creating EV requires about 30% less effort, which means job cuts. Although this figure has been repeated by other managers and researchers, there has been no empirical research to support this claim. For its part, the UAW continues to study the matter and remains vigilant.

Current UAW contracts with GM, Ford and Stellantis (formerly Fiat Chrysler), ratified in September 2019, help protect workers at assembly plants like Orion that are transitioning from internal combustion to electric vehicle production. Essentially, the UAW and each of the companies are negotiating huge EV-related investments at current UAW-represented facilities to keep jobs at those locations and offer retraining opportunities.

In September Washington Post interviewGM CEO Mary Barra addressed the issue of electric vehicle jobs, saying “we’re distributing electric vehicles or components for electric vehicles in our existing footprint. So we’ll continue to do that. It’s not just a labor advantage, it’s also an advantage because we have a facility.”

“Historically, job losses have always been a cause for concern, but after electric cars entered the Big Three [assembly plants]we understand more about them,” said David Michael, communications coordinator for UAW Local 5960. He said there have been no job losses at Orion as a result of the electric vehicle production, and in fact, “we’re seeing job growth. “

When asked about the fate of the workers whose jobs were specific to the ICE cars and were no longer needed, Michael said that they are “now either making electric car components, transmissions, or doing alternative work to make electric cars. They’re all fine. We had an assembly line where [ICE] the engines have failed and now it’s electric drives.’

The likelihood of job retention and hiring at Orion is promising following the announcement earlier this month that GM will increase bolt production from nearly 44,000 vehicles this year to more than 70,000 in 2023. While the overall electric vehicle market in the U.S. still represents only about 5% of new car sales, it is growing rapidly, among the 1.65 million electric vehicles sold in the first nine months of 2022, the Bolt accounted for more than 22,000.

General Motors Chairman and CEO Mary Barra announces a $300 million investment in GM’s Orion Assembly Plant for electric and driverless vehicles at the Orion Assembly Plant on March 22, 2019 in Lake Orion, Michigan.

Bill Pulliano | Getty Images

However, another major overhaul is planned at the Orion assembly plant. GM revealed in January that it is investing $4 billion to retool the plant again, this time to produce all-electric models of the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, pickup trucks that will compete with the Ford F-150 Lightning, the EV version of the best-selling car in the US. As for the future of the Bolt, GM has not confirmed anything other than that its production will continue while the plant is retooled for electric pickups.

The transition to electric pickup trucks, GM said, will begin in 2024 and is expected to create more than 2,350 new jobs at Orion and retain about 1,000 current jobs when the plant is at full capacity. The new jobs at Orion will be filled by a combination of GM transfers and new hires, GM said.

This latest transition will require another round of retraining for Orion’s workforce. “We have a core team working on electric pickups, interacting with engineers and suppliers to learn how the vehicles will be assembled,” GM’s Tom Wickham, senior manager of manufacturing communications at Orion, said in an email. “As with previous launches, the core team will eventually help train the rest of the Orion team before we go into regular production of the Silverado and Sierra electric vehicles.”

GM also announced that as part of Ultium Cells’ joint venture with South Korea’s LG Energy Solution to produce battery cells for electric vehicles, the companies will invest $2.6 billion to build a third plant in Lansing, Michigan, which is expected to create more than 1700 new batteries. of jobs when the plant will operate at full capacity.

A nagging question is whether these battery manufacturing jobs, as well as others making parts for electric vehicles, will be represented by the UAW, and if so, at what wage rate. In July This is reported by Bloomberg that at Ultium Cells’ existing plant in Lordstown, Ohio, workers earn about $22 an hour, compared with $32 an hour for a traditional UAW picker. Ultium said it “respects the right of workers to unionize and the efforts of the UAW or any other union to organize battery cell workers at our manufacturing sites,” it said in a statement. Reuters.

“One of the things I’ve been paying attention to is whether some employers in [auto] industry is going to take advantage of this shift [to EVs] as an opportunity to try to lower wages, benefits and the quality of jobs,” said Gordon Laffer, director of the Center for Labor Education and Research at Oregon State University in Eugene. “It’s really unclear what the quality of those jobs will be. .”

Concerns about the impact of electric vehicles on jobs and facilities were a contentious issue in 2019 contract talks between GM and the UAW that broke down, leading to a six-week UAW strike at GM plants. The work stoppage cost GM nearly $2 billion in lost production and nearly $1 billion in employee wages. However, both sides agreed to relocate GM’s planned-to-be-closed Detroit Hamtramck plant to produce electric vehicles. Today, the facility, known as Factory ZERO, makes the electric Silverado and Sierra pickup trucks and the electric Hummer.

The UAW’s contract with GM expires next year, and production of electric vehicles, batteries and related components will no doubt be back on the list. “It’s definitely going to be the focal point of these negotiations,” Michael said. “UAW leadership is focused on electric vehicles and where these jobs will go. We have a president who is pro-union and pro-worker [Biden] which is passing great legislation that has helped automakers transition to electric vehicles, so we’re going to do everything we can to use all the jobs in the United States.”

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