Energy & Environment

What does the transition to EVs mean for workers?

Former President Trump and other GOP hopefuls are demonizing the shift to electric vehicles (EVs) as part of an effort to win over disaffected workers in Michigan. At the same time, President Biden is making the case that the transition can go hand-in-hand with job creation. 

The reality is grayer than politicians on either side of the aisle say, according to experts.

“We don’t see evidence” that EVs are “job-killers at this point,” said Sanya Carley, a professor of energy policy at the University of Pennsylvania. “We do see evidence that some factories have closed … we also see some evidence that plenty of factories have retooled or have changed.”

But she noted there may be instances where “several people have lost jobs at a specific factory and other people have gained jobs at other factories, and it might not be the same person.”

Speaking before autoworkers in Michigan last week, Trump described Biden’s electric vehicle policies as sending “Michigan autoworkers to the unemployment line.”

And during last week’s GOP presidential debate, former Vice President Mike Pence said Biden’s “Green New Deal agenda is good for Beijing and bad for Detroit.”

The barbs come as the United Auto Workers (UAW) union strikes over pay-related issues. The union does not oppose the transition to electric vehicles, with UAW president Shawn Fain saying it’s a “false choice” to present EVs as being in opposition to worker rights, but it has accused automakers of using the transition to pay workers less.

The Biden administration, meanwhile, has embraced EVs as a climate solution, proposing a rule that’s expected to make two-thirds of new car sales electric by 2032 and passing tax credits for electric vehicle purchases in Biden’s signature climate bill — a measure Trump has frequently railed against.

The administration has said Biden’s policies launched an “electric vehicle manufacturing boom.”

A shift toward electric vehicles may be a job creator, experts told The Hill this week. But it is unlikely to be painless for workers because jobs may shift to other parts of the country in the transition. 

Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found the transition to electric vehicles has the potential to eliminate jobs from Michigan, Indiana and Ohio if policies to protect workers are not implemented. 

It also found, however, that if policies are put in place to protect workers’ jobs, such as a requirement that components for the batteries needed to power electric vehicles be made domestically, the shift could actually spur the creation of 50,000 jobs in those states compared to existing circumstances. 

“That was an extremely important finding that in fact we ended up with more manufacturing jobs in the tri-state area,” said David Foster, chief author of the paper. 

Such rules were included in Biden’s climate law that expanded consumer subsidies for electric vehicles — and mandated that a percentage of a vehicle’s battery components must be manufactured in the U.S. for it to qualify for a portion of the credit. 

Foster, a distinguished fellow at the Energy Futures Initiative and former Obama administration energy adviser, was also chief author of a paper that modeled the jobs impacts of energy legislation passed under Biden. 

That paper projected that the U.S. will have a net increase of 45,000 manufacturing jobs by 2030. It projected there will be 61,000 new vehicle manufacturing jobs. 

Stephanie Valdez-Streaty, Cox Automotive’s strategic planning director focused on electric vehicles, was also optimistic that the intermediary period in which automakers are selling both gas-powered and electric vehicles will provide a cushion as workers retrain for new jobs.

“Right now we’re still in this place where there’s still [internal combustion engine vehicles] and EVs that are going to be produced,” Valdez-Streaty said. 

“As we start to transition to only EV, that’s not going to happen for a while, so … in the near term, I don’t think we’re going to see any big impact of job loss,” she added. “It gives us time for the transition for workers to get re-skilled.”

On the whole, Valdez-Streaty expects the impact to jobs to be mixed.

“Some jobs will be replaced, but I think there’s going to be new jobs created, both direct and indirect,” she said, adding there may be new jobs in battery manufacturing and making and maintaining charging infrastructure. 

However, some EV jobs may move to different parts of the country. 

Carley, with the University of Pennsylvania, said many new facilities geared toward electric vehicle manufacturing are opening in the South rather than the Midwest, a historic auto industry hub.

“There’s this geographic mismatch where some of the factories that are closing are in the Midwest and the factories that are opening are in the South,” Carley said, adding this means that “it’s not necessarily the same person who gets the job” at the new factory.

The southward shift is also to an area with less union presence — which could have implications for working conditions and wages.

“This raises questions about whether or not we’ll see workers be protected and their wages be protected,” she said. 

A 2022 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University indicated the labor required to produce batteries means EVs overall require more worker hours to manufacture than gas-powered cars.

But as for whether that means the same jobs will stay in the same places, “that one’s hard,” said Turner Cotterman, a consultant with McKinsey who worked on the Carnegie Mellon study.

“We’ve seen a little bit of movement on the question so far, and still a bit of a question mark remains,” Cotterman said.

“Now, if you look at a map of where factory announcements are [made], it’s more or less distributed across most the U.S. We see some in the Southeast, some in the Midwest, some in California, some in the Southwest.”

Cotterman said that the trend of announcements regarding EV facilities “probably … means that the Midwest is no longer going to be the only hub for manufacturing. It’s no surprise that a lot of attention is going out to the southeast because of, for one reason, relaxed union concerns.”

This has been a particularly salient issue amid the ongoing UAW strike, as workers seek guarantees that the transition to EV manufacturing will include union job protections.

“When you’re the decision maker, or the CEO of one of these automakers, figuring out where to site your plant, certainly labor is a concern. And we’ve seen lots of examples where labor has been one of the bottlenecks in terms of scaling up some of these production facilities,” Cotterman said.

And entirely unrelated to labor concerns, he said, batteries are so heavy that the industry must make sure EV facilities are close to train lines or ports. 

“It depends on how conversations move forward. But the opportunity exists to support the EV workers as well as the [internal combustion engine] workers have been supported, and opportunities exist to provide more labor opportunities to the American manufacturing workforce,” Cotterman concluded. “But a lot of these are dependent on battery manufacturing, and most of the steps of battery manufacturing being done in the U.S., versus we see a lot of it done by third-party companies and partnerships abroad right now.”

At the same time, the U.S. is not the only nation shifting toward electric vehicles, and international factors have also likely influenced the transition to EVs beyond any domestic policy moves.

Starting in 2035, all new cars sold in the European Union must be electric. China, meanwhile, has significant subsidies for electric vehicles.

“The most important driver of what’s going on with motor vehicle electrification is really global in nature,” Foster, the former Obama official, said.

“What really drove motor vehicle manufacturers in the United States down this very rapid path to electrification is the fact that other parts of the world were several steps ahead of us,” he said.