28 November 2012

GM Trending Towards a Younger Workforce

story first appeared in The Detroit News

The new generation of automotive manufacturing workers at a General Motors Co. subsidiary here is focused on career and environment, and they want to work with cutting-edge technology.

That's part of what attracted many millennials — roughly defined as those born in the 1980s and 1990s — to help create an integral part of the future of the automobile: They're assembling lithium-ion batteries for the Chevrolet Volt extended-range plug-in and the equivalent cars the automaker sells in Europe and Australia.

The Brownstown Battery Assembly Plant, in a former warehouse with little to identify it as a GM plant, represents the Detroit automaker's youngest workforce. It is operated by a GM subsidiary, GM Subsystems Manufacturing LLC. And 45 percent of its hourly workforce is composed of 24-to-31-year-olds.

That's a huge contrast to other GM plants, where that generation, on average, represents 9 percent of the workforce. The average GM U.S. hourly worker is 47 years old.

About 70 hourly workers and 35 salaried workers assemble packs for the Volt that contain 288 lithium-ion cells manufactured by LG Chem. Trucks arrive four times a day to take battery packs to the nearby GM Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant, where they go into the Chevrolet Volt, Holden Volt and Opel Ampera. Late next year, the Brownstown plant expects to start assembling batteries for the plug-in Cadillac ELR coupe.

Most of Brownstown's hourly employees have not previously worked for GM. Many, including the plant's youngest employee, Valerie Myaard, 24, of Flat Rock, had no auto or manufacturing experience. She started in May 2010 and now is a team leader, overseeing five workers.

Young seek new challenges

GM partnered with Scratch, a Viacom company, to help research young workers. It found they are quick to seek new challenges, are able to multitask and want to move up the career ladder.

Many Brownstown workers have held multiple jobs since the plant opened in 2010.

They also have worked together to develop the best and most effective ways of doing things. They determined where to set up components on a cart for assembly workers to use.

Even the plant's union shop chairman is just 27.

But attracting talented younger workers who see the auto industry as a career has been a challenge. It also is something Gov. Rick Snyder has said is vital to its success.

Jay Baron, president and CEO of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said in a statement that GM is just now starting to see a trend in the average age of the hourly worker in the auto industry.

Some workers thought a GM career was out of reach. Shannon Pearson, 28, of Taylor is one. She had family ties to GM and had a short-lived job at a GM plant in 2006.

Excited about technology

Many of the younger workers at Brownstown are relishing their roles working with new technology.

Brett Powell, 31, of Hartland, who has worked as a technician at the proving ground and worked for a small firm that manufactured electric vehicles, runs tests on returned batteries to find the cause of a failure.

Many at Brownstown have moved up the ranks quickly, including Tony Lamentola, 26, of Southgate. The college student previously worked as a porter and fast food restaurant employee. After starting at Brownstown in 2010, he was promoted last fall to team leader.

Lamentola said he likes being on the "forefront of technology" and sees the importance of getting young people involved in the auto industry.

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