Battery Opportunities Coming

Posted on February 1, 2011

Michigan’s advanced battery industry is reaching critical mass on both sides of the state with plenty of job opportunities.

But job seekers need engineering degrees and experience for more technical jobs or a manufacturing or skilled trades background for production work, according to executives and human resource managers.

“We see our work force in Michigan expanding to between 2,000 and 3,000 over the next several years,” said Jason Forcier, vice president for A123 Systems automotive solutions group in Livonia.

Other major players include JCI Saft and LG Chem — both in Holland — General Motors’ own battery plant in Brownstown Township; Dow Kokam in Midland, Magna E-Car and ALTe — both in Auburn Hills — Azure Dynamics in Oak Park and SB LiMotive in Orion Township.

Except for A123, whose Michigan payroll is about 400, most of these operations range from a couple dozen to 100 or so employees, but growth is nearly assured with higher fuel economy requirements and higher gas prices.

“We anticipate most of the labor force will come from southeastern Michigan,” said Jeff DeFrank, chief technology officer and co-founder of ALTe.

Engineers, production staff needed

Walk around a lithium-ion battery plant and it’s easy to conclude the nation would need thousands of these operations to offset more than a fraction of the nearly 5 million American jobs that disappeared between September 2008 and April 2009.

There’s more automation than people. Batteries and the packs into which workers and robots package them are not very large. You also don’t see the sleekly sculpted body panels that give cars and trucks their sex appeal.

Still, the jobs are coming. The numbers may be incremental. A quick survey of about a dozen Michigan battery companies found that together their headcounts may be somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000. That does not include people within the major automakers who are primarily assigned to alternative powertrain development. For example, GM plans to hire 1,000 electric-vehicle engineers and researchers in Michigan over the next two years.

Those in the fledgling battery industry expect growth because they are supplying vehicles that automakers have already ordered. This is not like building speculative McMansions in hopes that banks will lend to anyone with a pulse.

Analysts can debate the rate at which Americans will adapt to plugging in rather than filling up, but keep this in mind: Automakers must boost the average fuel economy of their fleets to 35.5 m.p.g. by 2016.

Rising gas prices will provide the other impetus.

Today, with Michigan’s unemployment rate at 11.7%, applicants outnumber openings. But the skill sets needed are here.

“Fifty percent of our staff was unemployed when we hired them, but nearly all had previous experience in the auto industry,” said Jason Forcier, vice president of A123 Systems automotive solutions group. The Watertown, Mass.-based company now has 400 people producing battery packs and coating electrodes in Livonia and Romulus. Another 50 highly skilled engineers are conducting advanced research in Ann Arbor.

Pay for engineering jobs will be competitive with what Tier 1 automotive suppliers pay. Production jobs will be commensurate with what other parts manufacturers pay. For example, JCI’s partner Saft is paying production workers between $15 and $18 an hour at a similar plant in Jacksonville, Fla. Maintenance technicians are paid between $19 and $22 an hour.

Magna E-Car Systems, a joint venture between Magna and its chairman Frank Stronach, now has about 200 mostly engineers in Auburn Hills. They are working primarily on testing and validation of the Ford Focus EV’s train, said Ted Robertson, president of the joint venture.

“We’re looking for all varieties of engineers — powertrain, electrical, thermal, vehicle integration, validation and battery experts, as well as chemists and testing technicians,” Robertson said.

Jeff DeFrank, chief technology officer of ALTe in Auburn Hills, said his firm is looking for mechanical and electrical engineers, “or anyone with a background in hybrid drivetrain controls and material sciences.”

ALTe’s electric powertrains are designed for full-size pickups and vans owned by corporate and government fleets. They will replace V8 engines and retrofit them.

They are working toward a production launch in the second quarter of 2012 when they will start with a production team of about 40 people, ramping up gradually to about 100 by the end of the year.

“Those who have worked in manufacturing will have an advantage,” DeFrank said.

JCI Saft in Holland is making lithium-ion battery packs with 30 salaried and 15 production people. Plant manager Bill Delaney said production will begin by the end of March on batteries for the Ford Transit Connect. In addition, battery cells now produced by another JCI Saft plant in France will be made in Holland beginning this fall.

“By the end of the year, we should have a little over 100 people,” said Delaney.

Doug Bartman, human resource manager for the Holland plant, said on the technical side JCI Saft is seeking manufacturing, chemical and electrical engineers, as well as technicians with an associate’s or four-year degree in an electrical field. For manufacturing, a college degree would help, but isn’t necessary if an applicant has some manufacturing experience.

In the last year, he has received more than 1,500 résumés. Yet it won’t be such an employer’s market forever. LG Chem, the Korean company whose U.S. subsidiary Compact Power supplies the Chevrolet Volt’s battery cells, is opening a plant two miles down the road with plans to hire up to 400 workers when it begins production in 2012.