TOLEDO – When General Motors boldly announced its goal last month to make only battery-powered vehicles by 2035, it didn't just mark a break with more than a century of making internal combustion engines. It also clouded the future for 50,000 GM workers whose skills – and jobs – could become obsolete far sooner than they knew.
The message was clear: As a greener U.S. economy edges closer into view, GM wants a factory workforce that eventually will build only zero-emissions vehicles.
It won't happen overnight. But the likelihood is growing that legions of autoworkers who trained and worked for decades to build machines that run on petroleum will need to do rather different work in the next decade – or they might not have jobs.
If the history-making shift from internal combustion to electric power goes as GM, Ford and others increasingly envision, jobs that now involve making pistons, fuel injectors and mufflers will be supplanted by the assembly of lithium-ion battery packs, electric motors and heavy-duty wiring harnesses.
Many of those components are now built overseas. But President Joe Biden has made the development of a U.S. electric vehicle supply chain a key part of his ambitious plan to create 1 million more auto industry jobs with electric vehicles.
Yet for workers at GM and other automakers, that future could be perilous. The more environmentally focused plants of the future will need fewer workers, mainly because electric vehicles contain 30% to 40% fewer moving parts than petroleum-run vehicles. In addition, many of the good union jobs that have brought a solid middle-class lifestyle could shift to lower pay as automakers buy EV parts from supply companies or form separate ventures to build components.
Most vulnerable in the transition will be the roughly 100,000 people in the United States who work at plants that make transmissions and engines for gas and diesel vehicles.
They are people like Stuart Hill, one of 1,500 or so workers at GM's Toledo Transmission Plant in Ohio. At 38 years old and a GM employee for five years, Hill is still decades from retirement. The future of the plant and his role in it worries him.
“It's something that's in the back of my mind,” Hill said. “Are they going to shut it down?”
He and others hope that Toledo will be among the sites where GM will build more EV parts. If not, he'd be open to moving to some other plant to continue to earn a solid wage; top-scale workers represented by the United Auto Workers union are paid around $31 an hour.
Yet there is hardly assurance that automakers will need as many workers in the new EV era. A UAW paper from two years ago quotes Ford and Volkswagen executives as saying that EVs will reduce labor hours per vehicle by 30%.
“There are just less parts, so of course it stands to reason that there is going to be less labor,” said Jeff Dokho, research director for the UAW.
“We're sort of at the beginning of that transition,” said Teddy DeWitt, an assistant professor of management at University of Massachusetts Boston who studies how jobs evolve over time. “It's not going to be just in the vehicle space.”
The number of industry jobs that will be lost in the transition will likely reach into the thousands, though no one knows with any precision.
And those losses will made up, at least in part, by jobs created by a greener economy, from work involved in building electric vehicle parts and charging stations to jobs created by wind and solar electricity generation.