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To fully embrace electric vehicles, the auto industry must adjust its workforce

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Though electric vehicles currently make up a sliver of auto sales, automakers have seen enough to know the future is, indeed, electric. Registrations for EVs in the U.S. shot up 60% in the first few months of 2022. But to really embrace that future, the auto industry has to adjust its workforce. And as NPR's Arezou Rezvani reports, white-collar workers may be among the first to feel the impact.

AREZOU REZVANI, BYLINE: Here in a Ford factory in Dearborn, Mich., a stone's throw from where the company rolled out its Model T 100-some years ago, the future is taking shape.

JAYLIN JONES: A very busy day. It's always busy in here. They need these trucks. Yeah, high demand, so we got to put them out.

REZVANI: That's 28-year-old assembly line worker Jaylin Jones, who's in the middle of his 11-hour shift. He used to work on America's bestselling vehicle, the gas-powered F-150. But demand for its slick, new electric counterpart, the Lightning, is so high, Ford has been retraining workers like Jones to help ramp up production. As the auto industry goes all in on EVs, what's emerging is just how much of the auto workforce will change with it. Electric vehicles have fewer parts. They'll require fewer factory workers like Jones. But certain white-collar engineering jobs, those tied to gas engines, won't go unscathed either, says Michelle Krebs of Cox Automotive.

MICHELLE KREBS: There will be layoffs, but there will also be new hires because there's different kinds of workers that are needed. Software engineers are hugely important in EVs.

REZVANI: That's because electric vehicles are essentially computers on wheels. And who better to develop them than software engineers, says Krebs. Problem is, there aren't enough of those engineers right now. Ford's chief learning officer, Craig DeWald, says universities that were once a reliable talent pipeline for the auto industry are still too focused on gas engines and transmissions.

CRAIG DEWALD: The universities are recognizing they're behind. They've got to catch up. And they've got their own learning to do to really sort of come along and, you know, continue to be relevant in the way the world is changing.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL TOLLING)

REZVANI: About an hour's drive from Ford at the University of Michigan, about 100 graduate students, many with industry experience, are shuffling into professor Arthur Hyde's automotive engineering class.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: I know. I applied to German company.

REZVANI: On this day, they're learning about China's market, the largest electric vehicle market in the world.

ARTHUR HYDE: This is a competitive world. China's got 100 carmakers.

REZVANI: After class, professor Hyde, a former Ford engineer himself, explains that the department has been trying to offer more relevant courses. But it's been hard to find the right professors.

HYDE: We can't find anybody who is teaching systems engineering for software. And that's the key issue. Every program gets delayed because of that.

REZVANI: It's a vexing, growing pain. Both industry and academia are adjusting, even though this epic transformation is well underway. And so they're finding talent farther afield. A growing number of students in Hyde's classes are from China and India, a talent pool U.S. automakers are also tapping into.

HYDE: Most companies I'm aware of have engineering centers in India that do nothing but writing software. It's almost like an assembly plant.

REZVANI: Expanding electric fleets, adjusting the workforce, it all goes to show America's path to an electric future won't be simple or straightforward. Automakers can't completely let go of gas cars yet. They're still huge moneymakers. While companies hire certain workers, they'll also gradually fire others, as Ford did last month when it let go of 3,000 white-collar employees. It's a pivotal moment, and the industry's reassessing everything, says Jen Waldo, Ford's chief people officer.

JEN WALDO: So, look, transformations are messy. They're ambiguous. And as a part of this transformation, we have to look at every aspect of everything that we do across every function.

REZVANI: And so the race is on, not simply to reach the electric future but to find the right minds to get us there. Arezou Rezvani, NPR News, Dearborn, Mich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Arezou Rezvani is a senior editor for NPR's Morning Edition and founding editor of Up First, NPR's daily news podcast.