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Voltage Valley Starts Workforce Training Efforts, Despite Troubles at Electric Truck Plant

Lordstown Motors workers and the Endurance
Julie Grant
The Allegheny Front
Lordstown Motors opened up its plant to show off work on its electric truck, the Endurance.

The bumpy road to Voltage Valley

The former steel region in Eastern Ohio across the Pennsylvania border is moving forward with a new industry: electric vehicles. This is the same area that lost jobs when a General Motors plant closed there in 2019. Leaders are now pushing to rebrand the region as Voltage Valley, largely anchored by an electric vehicle battery plant, and by troubled new electric truck upstart Lordstown Motors. Despite this uncertainty, efforts are moving forward with workforce training to supply both companies with the thousands of qualified employees they will need.

workers at Lordstown Motors move sheet metal
Julie Grant
The Allegheny Front
Workers remove a piece of metal that's been shaped in a stamping machine, part of the process of making the truck body.

Lordstown Motors sparked hope in the Mahoning Valley when it bought GM’s closed assembly plant and started converting it to make its battery-powered pickup truck, the Endurance. The company let some investors, analysts, and the media take a peek at the plant, with tours this week.

Inside Lordstown Motors

Upbeat employees clad in black Lordstown Motors t-shirts, stopped at predetermined spots inside the plant, like the stamping operation, where they press sheets of metal to make pieces for the cab, the paint shop, and the general assembly area where the finished cab is “married” to the chassis.

John Wood, director of general assembly, said he worked at this plant for years when it was still owned by GM.

Julie Grant
The Allegheny Front
Workers put together the cab of an Endurance truck.

“My last assignment with General Motors was to help close this place down. I'm ecstatic to be part of the team that's going to reopen it,” Wood said.

Julie Grant
The Allegheny Front
A finished and painted Endurance cab is “married” to the chassis.

The plant looks clean inside, but it’s unclear how close it is to producing trucks. For instance, one stop on the tour showed a prototype of the truck’s unique four-part motor system, where each motor attaches to a wheel hub. Floor space was cleared and painted in this area, but company officials said the actual motors aren’t scheduled to arrive at the plant until August, just a month before they expect to start production.

Lordstown Motors itself has cast doubt on its ability to start commercial production and start selling trucks. In just the past few weeks, the company revealed that it might not last a year without additional investments and admitted it doesn’t have any firm purchase commitments for the Endurance.

Lordstown Motors’ founder and CEO, along with the chief financial officer, both resigned. Most recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that five company executives sold off $8 million of stocks before its dismal first quarter earnings report.

Julie Grant
The Allegheny Front
On a tour of Lordstown Motors, journalists were driven around in golf carts to stops where company officials and employees talked about the process to produce the Endurance.

Lordstown Motors declined to talk about these problems on the tour.

As employees took visitors on test drives on a beta version of the Endurance, Lordstown police officer Brett Blank stood watching, unconcerned about the recent news.

We're excited, and honestly we can't wait to see the future of this plant because it is the future of Lordstown,” Blank said. “And a lot of us have been long life residents, and we're depending on this plant to do well.”

Road to Voltage Valley

Whatever happens with Lordstown Motors, business and political leaders still sound optimistic.

Julie Grant
The Allegheny Front
Lordstown Motors’ employees took visitors on test drives of a beta version of the Endurance.

“Undoubtedly, the news coming out of Lordstown Motors is concerning,” said Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan, who represents the area. “It is important to remember that they are one piece of a larger movement transforming our region into what has been coined as Voltage Valley.”

Guy Coviello, president of the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he hopes Lordstown Motors generates the capital it needs to produce vehicles long term, but he noted that the electric vehicle manufacturing is a competitive new industry. “Every time there is new technology, there will be multiple fits and starts,” he said. “This doesn't change Voltage Valley.”

Coviello pointed to other major new investments coming in the area, like Ultium Cells, a joint venture of General Motors and LG Energy Solutions. Ultium is building a $2.3 billion battery plant in Lordstown that’s expected to open next year and hire 1,100 people.

The loss of jobs was hard on the community when GM closed its Chevrolet plant, according to Lordstown’s fire chief Travis Eastham. He worked 25 years at the former GM plant, removing dents and other repetitive tasks. Eastham is glad to hear about all the new jobs, but he still has some concerns.

“The last thing we want is a bunch of low paying jobs with repeat turnover of people because no one wins in that one. It's just not good for the area,” he said.

GM recently agreed to support unionization efforts at Ultium, after the United Auto Workers called on them to pay union wages at new joint venture battery plants.

The jobs there won’t be the same as the former assembly line jobs though, and Ultium will need to find enough qualified workers.

Getting the Workforce Ready

At a recent virtual job fair hosted by nearby Youngstown State University, Ultium’s CEO Tom Gallagher introduced the product they will be making at the plant to the 89 people in attendance.

“This is a battery cell. This is what propels the vehicle. It is roughly 18 inches long, about 4 inches high. It has about 4 volts of power in this battery,” he explained. “So really exciting, you have hundreds of these in a vehicle. We’ll be making millions of these in Ohio.”

They need workers trained in their computer and chemical processes to make these cells, which is why Youngstown State received $5 million from GM to develop workforce training.

“We know that the skills of today are going to require more than a high school diploma,” said Jennifer Oddo, the university’s director of Workforce Education and Innovation.

Julie Grant
The Allegheny Front
Jennifer Oddo at Youngstown State University.

“You're coming into an environment where you're working on computers,” she said. “You have digital literacy skills. You're working in a team environment where communication, collaboration is really critical to the success of your job.”

Youngstown State already has training courses and apprenticeships in areas like robotics and IT networks. It's opening a new $22 million workforce training center, funded by the state and federal governments, later this summer. All together, the university hopes to train 1,500 workers over the next 18 to 24 months in new types of manufacturing like electric batteries and vehicles, according to Oddo.

“These new jobs coming into these new industries, they’re going to pay a higher wage. They’re going to require an advanced skill,” she said. “So building training programs, building these apprenticeship models will really help us to ensure that we are building a sustainable community for the Mahoning Valley, for Voltage Valley.”

Still, it’s unclear whether the shaky position of Lordstown Motors is a concern for the whole industry, or is just a bump in the road for the region’s move toward a new electric vehicle future.

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The Allegheny Front is an award-winning public radio program covering environmental issues in Western Pennsylvania, airing on WESA in Pittsburgh and on stations throughout the region.

Find out more at https://www.alleghenyfront.org/about/

Julie Grant covers agricultural issues for the Allegheny Front—exploring what we eat, who produces it and how it’s related to the natural environment.