Battery Education Infrastructure Requires Huge Effort and Wide Coordination
A panel of industry experts and academics agreed that ensuring a supply of battery-knowledgeable workers needs systemic investment from grade school through graduate-level programs, and must include vocational training.
China is stunningly ahead of the United States in the support and education of the future EV battery workforce. That was the stark message at the start of a 2023 Battery Show North America panel discussion titled “Educating the Next Generation of Battery Workers.”
Two panelists discussed their 2019 visit to a battery safety symposium at St. Paul University in Beijing. As part of the trip, panelists Brian Engle, director of electrification business development at Amphenol, and University of Michigan Professor of Mechanical Engineering Anna Stefanopoulou took a lab tour. “Shock number one,” said Engle, “was that the lab had technology that was better than NASA at the time.” He said shock number two was when they saw the “patent wall,” a display of more than 200 patents earned by students at the university.
They also met a professor who had 70 post-graduate students working for him, solely in electrochemistry. “So it’s time to tie our shoes at the starting line and get going,” Engle said.
Even today, said moderator John Warner, chief customer officer of American Battery Solutions, there are no more than two battery engineering programs in the entire U.S. “There are many courses, but few programs,” he said.
Essentially, panelists said, whole-system development is needed, with the cooperation of government, private business, industry groups and educational institutions, to create multiple pathways from K-12 programs to build interest and knowledge, vocational programs for manufacturing and technical workers, to college and graduate programs to support more research.
Vijay Dhar, lithium-bridge program director at New Energy Nexus and chair of the NAATBatt Education Committee, said that all estimates indicate that 70% to 80% of all battery workforce needs will be in blue-collar jobs. Those initially will be a mix of new workers and more-experienced people transitioning from other electrical-sector or auto-industry jobs. Eventually it will have to be 100% new trainees, he said.
Dhar added that there is an overwhelming array of organizations and governmental efforts working on the education of the advanced battery workforce, but communication and coordination of programs will be the primary factor in overall success.
Having those complete programs at the college level is important, said Stefanopoulou. “We have a unique place where we can we have a pilot facility where we make batteries. And what I say to my students is that to understand battery engineering, we need to make them, we need to test them and use them. And at the end, you'll need to sort of kill them and learn how actually to protect ourselves. And the students need to actually experience all these phases of the battery life.”
Michael Paras, SAE International’s business development manager for commercial partnerships and products, said the organization known for standards also is a robust training organization focusing on the battery workforce. “We are an international training organization, and overall we train anywhere from 10,000 to 12,000 engineers around the world every year, in 60 languages on multiple continents live and online.”
Paras talked about the SAE/InnoEnergy Battery Academy , a new program administered by SAE’s Sustainability Mobility Solutions group. “We have launched a 22-course on-demand program to start, that is really focused on lithium-ion battery technology, cradle-to-grave from mining to second life. And it's the first part of a multi-prong strategy to create these types of intensive learnings with partners and with some of the organizations that are sitting on this stage.”
Engle ended with a word of caution that until a full economy of training and education is up and running, the industry and educators must be cautious. He cited a battery manufacturing plant in Georgia that had to “scale back an expansion program because they couldn’t find the training resources.” He continued: “And one project in the West had to bus in people because they couldn’t find enough people locally.”
And while many of the manufacturing jobs will be considered blue-collar, the reality is that many roles in the plants will not be traditional hands-on jobs. Most battery cases, for example, are built without ever being touched by human hands.
Amphenol’s Engle agreed that it’s important that those leading the training and education push acknowledge the nature of the work. “It is not a low-skill industry, it is a moderate- to high-skill industry. And even without a bachelor's or a Ph.D, there are a lot of roles for software programmers, for other application spaces, even things like water control, you know, you're using a lot of water in these plants,” he said. “And you need to have somebody who is basically a hydrologist. So there's a lot of activity here that's associated with manufacturing, that is not just being an electric chemist, not just basically understanding the batteries, but understanding that whole process flow from beginning to end. And the automation and the data acquisition are a huge part of that.”