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Posted on Tue, Aug 11, 2009 : 1:21 p.m.

Nathan Bomey: Battery workforce training crucial to economic transition

By Nathan Bomey

What does a job posting for a battery production specialist look like?

What skills do you need to work in an advanced manufacturing facility where lithium cells are converted into battery packs for electric vehicles?

The manufacturing skills required to work at a battery plant are reasonably comparable to those required for clocking hours at an auto manufacturing plant, experts say.

But engineering? Engineering a lithium-ion battery for an electric vehicle is among the most desired skills in the economy today.

That’s why the University of Michigan is poised to construct a new niche for itself - battery workforce development specialist.

U-M’s College of Engineering is developing college courses and high school curriculum aimed at creating a workforce capable of filling the thousands of new jobs popping up at Michigan battery facilities in the next few years.

U-M raked in $2.5 million in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop its battery education programs. Wayne State University and Michigan Technological University received another $7.5 million collectively.

Michigan’s rich manufacturing heritage explains the reasoning behind the federal government’s decision to deliver more than $1 billion in battery grants to Michigan operations.

But conducting a wholesale workforce transition isn’t as simple as encouraging people to change their personal marketing strategies on LinkedIn.

That’s why the $10 million in funding for Michigan-based battery skills training is nearly as important as the $1 billion in grants for manufacturing operations.

It's supremely crucial that Michigan’s workforce cultivate the new skills necessary to thrive in the battery world.

“We’ve got the greatest workforce in the world right here,” U.S. Rep. John Dingell declared at a rally Aug. 5 in Detroit. “And we’re rarin’ to go.”

But enthusiasm isn’t enough unfortunately.

The competition in this emerging market is already global. It includes experienced engineers in Japan and South Korea and low-cost manufacturing operations at battery plants in China. The U.S. has long trailed the world in production and development of lithium-ion batteries for small electronics such as laptops and cell phones.

Yet governmental officials and industry leaders agree that the nation must not bequeath the vehicle battery industry to foreign competition.

“Those technologies must be based in America,” White House economic adviser Larry Summers said at the same rally with Dingell.

For Ann Arbor, workforce development is a task best managed by locally led governmental initiatives and grassroots efforts such as:

•Economic development organization Ann Arbor SPARK offers a program called Shifting Gears, which gives big-company executives the chance to evaluate their skills and learn how to thrive in an entrepreneurial environment. The program, led by Eastern Michigan University professor Diana Wong, gives workers the chance to overcome office culture issues that typically impede a transition from major company to small office environment.

•The Washtenaw County operations of Michigan Works!, led by Trenda Rusher, gives workers a chance to assess their skills and target new industries.

•U-M’s energy systems master’s engineering program, started by visionary battery professor Ann Marie Sastry, provides battery training that’s virtually impossible to find elsewhere. Her partnership with General Motors to retrain about 50 existing GM engineers illustrates the value of the program.

For Michigan and Ann Arbor, battery plants are important.

Battery skills are even more critical.

You can e-mail's Nathan Bomey or follow him on Twitter.