How Panasonic Is Closing a Lithium-Ion Engineer Skills Gap

The battery industry is just one of many industries that can benefit from broadening the talent pool by looking at different skill sets to fill open positions.

When Tesla’s Gigafactory 1 first opened in 2014, there were fewer than 400,000 electric vehicles on the road. Today, there are 7.5 million, and current projections show that by 2040, electric cars could make up 57 percent of all global passenger car sales.

The rapid growth of the electric vehicle (EV) industry has spurred a new demand for lithium-ion batteries—which used to primarily serve consumer gadgets. However, as the need for these batteries continues to grow, the industry struggles to keep up the pace in supplying batteries. This is primarily due to lack of engineers who have experience working with lithium-ion manufacturing. The industry is developing faster than new employees can be hired and trained, leading to a skills gap that is growing at nearly the same rate.

When New Jobs Demand New Recruiting Tactics

At Panasonic, this growth has led to the realization that traditional recruiting and training practices are no longer effective. To keep up with hiring in one of the world’s fastest-growing industries, it took finding some creative solutions to successfully address the skills gap and the demands of the electric vehicle market.

One of the most basic ways to rethink hiring for an emerging field is to realize that prospective employees likely won’t have specific experience related to that subject matter. It’s more important to identify skill sets that can be applied rather than focusing on a specific former job title. This can restrict the pool of potential candidates.

When considering candidates for a battery engineering position, since that specific experience is so rare, the best thing to look for is manufacturing experience. High-volume and high-precision industries are attractive, because lithium-ion engineering at the Gigafactory requires keeping up with enormous production numbers and high levels of automation. This experience is key to the skills battery engineers need, even if they are not battery-specific.

It is also important to consider an individual’s characteristics and how they approach work. For prospective battery engineers, it’s important to look at their curiosity and interest level in learning something new, their willingness to embrace challenges and discover solutions, and their overall desire to have a positive impact on society. Individuals who possess these qualities probably won’t think of the battery industry as being an option for them at first, but, in reality, they are often the industry’s most valuable contributors.

Creating Model Employees with On-The-Job Training

Take, for example, battery engineering manager Abigail Chitwood. When she graduated from Oregon State University with a chemistry degree, she wasn’t sure where her degree would take her. What she did know was that she wanted to go into a rewarding career where she could feel like she was giving back to society. She first considered the medical field, but then discovered battery engineering after moving to Reno, NV, and attending a Panasonic job fair. The thrill of a growing industry combined with the ability to contribute to reducing the need for fossil fuels was the selling factor, even though it was not a career she originally had in mind.

Abigail is also a great example of on-the-job growth. She joined Panasonic in 2017 with no prior knowledge of the battery industry, and today she is a manager responsible for overseeing a team of five battery engineers and has helped train more than 50. She is a prime example of how by rethinking recruitment strategies, companies can mold leaders in new fields.

On-the-job growth becomes more natural as an employee advances in their career, but it is important to start that growth on their first day at the company. At the Gigafactory, part of the day is spent helping new hires avoid getting lost in the 5 million-square-foot facility. The most important aspect of the day is getting new hires familiar with the equipment, machinery, and production steps. There is an entire team at the Gigafactory dedicated to training new hires, as there are only so many things that can be learned from pictures and tutorials. One of the more experienced battery engineers is paired with the new hire so they can spend several days together as the new hire gets acclimated. This approach helps tremendously in getting new hires up to speed and working independently.

The Future Generation of Lithium-Ion Engineers

The battery industry is growing rapidly, and each year promises to be more exciting than the last. When ground broke on Gigafactory 1, there was only one other lithium-ion megafactory under construction in the world. Today, there are close to 115 currently under construction. Despite the skills gap and the shortage of qualified lithium-ion engineers within the electric vehicle market, Tesla’s Gigafactory 1 continues to keep pace with demand. This is due to the new age hiring practices and flexibility the company has embraced to train engineers on the job. There has never been a better time to get into the battery industry.

The battery industry is not the only industry that can benefit from broadening the talent pool by looking at different skill sets to fill open positions. Technological advancements are constantly influencing what is being asked of the next designer who can create wearable gadgets, or a programmer who can develop automated voice-activated assistants. The jobs of tomorrow are only barely conceivable today. It simply doesn’t make sense to only rely on the hiring and training practices of the past.

Brent Wyatt is a technical recruiter with Panasonic Energy of North America located in Reno, NV. He has been working with Panasonic at the Gigafactory for nearly four years. He began his career as a battery engineer, and has since moved to the recruiting side and is responsible for hiring engineers for numerous Panasonic teams. He has been integral to helping the Gigafactory grow into the largest battery factory in the world by recruiting some of the  industry’s brightest minds to shape the future of electric vehicles. Wyatt’s interests include battery technology, electric vehicles, and exploring the vast outdoors that Reno has to offer.

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