Ferris State University is working to roll out an accelerated electric vehicle battery manufacturing training program to build a pipeline of workers for a planned $2.4 billion battery plant in the Big Rapids area.
The university has been credited as a major factor in Gotion Inc.’s decision to build a battery component factory in the region, and it is tasked with serving as the primary job training institution for it, said Bill Pink, president of Ferris State.
“If they indeed are coming to Big Rapids, they will be a major employer here in our region, and the university has to be responsive to that,” Pink told Crain’s. “We’re looking at certificate work that in turn may stack into associate degrees, or just around the training perspective.”
The Chinese manufacturer plans to create 2,350 high-tech jobs, it said late last year when it announced the project. However, the project still hinges on land acquisition and local approvals, and there has been community pushback on potential environmental concerns and ties to China.
Pink said he is working directly with Gotion to shape the training curriculum, which he expects to take six to 12 months to complete. The program would be the first of its kind at Ferris State and in Michigan, though other colleges and universities have been offering similar accelerated job training programs as the traditional four-year degree model faces general challenges.
“We’re looking at … getting folks up and running in the workforce as soon as we can, from the time that they step foot in the classroom to the time that they're out on the company floor,” Pink said.
When the certification will be offered to students depends on when Gotion plans to be operational, according to the university.
Gotion indicated late last year that hiring would begin as soon as June with the plant operational by 2024, though the company has not offered a site plan for construction or an updated timetable for completion. The factory would consist of two buildings producing cathode material and one producing anode material, which would be shipped to battery manufacturers that have not been named by the company.
The company has declined repeated requests for comment about the project since it was announced.
One of the big uncertainties looming over the plan has been the availability of labor. Big Rapids and Mecosta County have suffered population decline and loss of manufacturing and agricultural jobs in recent years.
“As far as the workforce needs go, the big question has been (are) there enough people in our area to fill the need and the demand,” said Shelly Keene, executive director for Michigan Works! West Central. “We’re not going to fill 2,300 positions from Mecosta County residents. We will be drawing from surrounding counties. It’s going to be good enough wages to attract people outside of the county.”
The jobs would pay an average annual wage of about $62,000, according to the company’s application to the Michigan Economic Development Corp., which approved $715 million of incentives for the project.
Ferris State’s close private sector collaboration highlights how the state is looking to better leverage its universities for attracting large-scale investment from companies.
Ferris State is expected to receive grant money from the MEDC to facilitate job training, though the MEDC has not said how much. The state is also working with Michigan State University, University of Michigan and various community colleges to help shape curricula around semiconductor manufacturing skills in a bid to land a microchip plant, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office announced last November.
Keene said community colleges and high schools in the Big Rapids area are following Ferris State’s lead to build a stronger manufacturing workforce.
“I just think it’s really all hands on deck,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure that we’re starting with the high school students and getting those who are interested in the trades ready by offering those certificate programs early.”
From Crain’s Detroit Business.