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New Growth: Forecasting the Zero-Emission Vehicle Workforce

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Flourishing Futures Metaculus Journal Climate Tipping Points

Zoë Brouns is a Senior Project Associate with the Federation of American Scientists' Technology & Innovation team. She focuses on climate and clean energy projects.

This fortified essay is part of the Climate Tipping Points initiative. You can join the tournament and help support sound climate policy here.

Overview

The electric vehicle workforce will play a key role in determining the viability of an EV ‘tipping point’ that could help reduce emissions and contribute to a net-zero economy. How much and how quickly the industry’s workforce grows in the coming years is dependent on a number of factors:

  • Implementation of legislation: The Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act are two major pieces of legislation that could help grow the EV workforce. But to be successful, federal agencies need to be able to distribute resources, work with industry stakeholders, and deliver guidance clearly and quickly. 
  • Domestic supply chains: Many of the incentives that target EVs require models to meet certain domestic content requirements in order to be eligible. Building out supply chains for battery production, vehicle manufacturing and assembly, and critical mineral mining are key to growing the industry and its workforce. 
  • Quality of domestic jobs: If EV industry jobs are well-paying, safe, and have training or apprenticeships available, they will be more attractive for potential employees and help grow an exciting industry. 
  • Future public investment: Further legislation, workforce development, and government procurement decisions are two ways the public sector can continue to invest in the EV industry, keeping momentum going and helping grow the workforce. 

Overall, the EV workforce stands to grow significantly in the coming years–most likely slowly at first, and then more quickly as the factors above gain momentum. 

Background

The US is in a pivotal moment when it comes to climate change mitigation and adaptation. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) have created an environment ripe for ‘positive tipping points’ for clean energy and a net-zero economy. ‘Positive tipping points’ are enabled by self-reinforcing feedback loops that can create exponential growth–in this case, pushing us closer to a net-zero economy. 

Electric vehicles are one example of an industry that benefits from feedback loops that could eventually result in a positive tipping point. As more companies invest in EVs, technologies improve and supply increases, prices will go down and more people will buy EVs, helping to reduce transportation emissions from internal combustion engine vehicles. As demand goes up, more companies will see the opportunity and invest, feeding back into the loop. Through this cycle, the EV industry could eventually reach a tipping point where this feedback loop is strong enough to drive EVs toward full saturation of the automotive sector. Whether, when, and under what conditions this could happen is the focus of many of the forecasting questions in the Climate Tipping Points initiative

The Domestic EV Workforce

One of the major factors at play in whether EVs can become a tipping point is the domestic EV workforce. The traditional automotive industry has shrunk in the last few decades, and an EV workforce will need to consist of reskilled workers and new types of workers in a range of industries. On the surface, it obviously includes engineers, designers, manufacturers, and assemblers–those that work directly on the products. But new plants require construction, especially considering the requirements around domestic content in the IRA. Critical minerals mining plays a role as well–another area where domestic supply chains could be improved, and jobs could be added. Finally, EVs need charging infrastructure—another challenge for expanding the industry. This scope gives us a better sense of what industries need to be considered to answer this question. 

The growth of the EV workforce could itself benefit from a feedback loop—as the domestic EV workforce’s expertise improves over time and encourages companies to keep investing in the U.S.—and is an important indicator of the growth of the industry at large. But similarly, how large the workforce will grow is dependent on a number of factors. 

Factors at Play

Implementation of legislation, development of domestic supply chains, quality of domestic jobs, and future public investment all will play a role in how large the EV workforce becomes in the coming years. This moment is both a challenge and an opportunity—to expand the EV workforce even further, and in doing so support job growth, community empowerment, and economic development nation-wide.

It starts with implementation. The IRA and IIJA both injected a significant amount of funding into the federal government, requiring years of rulemaking and guidance development. After months of meeting with industry, consumers, and other stakeholders, the Department of the Treasury released guidance in March 2023 on the clean vehicle credit in the IRA. This guidance provides more clarity to firms and takes their feedback into consideration. The proposed guidance will have a major impact on how firms grow supply chains, and where and how they choose to invest—including in their workforces. This guidance will not only drive investment decisions by firms, but will also determine how big the carrot is for consumers due to sourcing requirements. Already there is conflicting advice as to when to buy an electric vehicle to reap the most benefit from recent legislative incentives. Some consumers and firms may have waited for guidance to be released in order to know what models would qualify – and some consumers will continue to wait for prices to decrease or more models to qualify in the coming years as firms build out domestic supply chains. 

It’s not just the Treasury guidance. Even more recently, the EPA released over 1,000 pages of proposed rules on tailpipe emissions to motivate car manufacturers to increase their EV production and sales. These rules and guidance will drive private sector investments and consumer decisions that will in turn have an impact on how the EV workforce grows in the years ahead. 

The domestic content provisions in the bill will require real material changes for the growth of the EV industry and its workforce. The IRA mandated that in order to receive tax credits, EV components must be produced domestically. But without strong existing domestic supply chains for key technologies and critical minerals, producers will need to make steep investments in order to receive credits. Further, the US has long relied on other countries for mining, processing, and refining critical minerals, making obtaining these minerals domestically near impossible with the current mining capacity. These provisions, while important for economic growth and development, could halt the growth of the EV industry and workforce. As of writing, these domestic content requirements mean that there’s a relatively short list of EVs eligible for consumer tax credits. 

But domestic content requirements need not prevent the industry from growing – in fact, they should be an opportunity for both firms and communities. These requirements encourage firms to design and build EVs and components in-country, which could spur the growth of the EV workforce. Auto manufacturing hubs in the Midwest and Northeast that were left behind by firms offshoring jobs could see a resurgence in plant construction as those firms reinvest in electric vehicle manufacturing. Combined with prevailing wage and apprenticeship requirements for some areas of the EV industry like charging infrastructure and component manufacturing, firms have the opportunity to grow regional jobs and receive tax incentives for doing so. If done well—through the creation of high-quality, union, domestic jobs—these requirements could make EV employment an appealing prospect and grow the workforce even more. 

And industries don’t have to go on the journey alone. The IRA, CHIPS and Science Act, and IIJA offer a number of funding supports to building out a domestic supply chain for EV components. Whether it’s through research and development for semiconductors, opportunities to build partnerships with allies and ‘friendshoring’ manufacturing, or grants for recycling critical minerals, these legislative packages create a framework for building a domestic supply chain. Policymakers must focus on stakeholder engagement during implementation, in order to ensure that industry, innovators, and state and local communities can access these programs, develop their domestic supply chains, and get the resources to expand the EV workforce.

Finally, there is always the opportunity that further public investment could create jobs in the EV industry. The chances of a large legislative package like IRA or IIJA passing again might be slim, but the federal government will still be rolling out funding and programs from those laws for years to come. For example, the Biden Administration has made significant progress on building charging infrastructure for EVs and creating more quality jobs in the industry. The government’s plans for electrifying federal fleets is another win: Federal procurement is a mighty tool for spurring clean energy deployment, given how large the federal government’s purchasing power is. The US Postal Service, for example, is well on its way to electrifying more and more of its massive fleet. The federal government could also target the EV workforce specifically, directing funding toward job training, apprenticeships, or education curricula development to help support workers moving into the industry. 

These factors represent a range of futures for the EV workforce. The 2022 USEER report shows that jobs in the EV industry grew by 25% from 2019-2021, with about 105,000 people employed, mostly working in production, manufacturing, installation, and repairs. An Energy Futures Initiative report, although not modeling the growth of the EV workforce independently, finds a correlation between the bounceback and growth of manufacturing jobs to the IRA and IIJA provisions including domestic content requirements for EVs. Current Metaculus predictions for future years range from about 130,000-160,000 in 2025 and go up to about 500,000 in 2035.

Based on these data, I’m optimistic about the future of the EV workforce. The workforce may grow more slowly in the next few years, as domestic supply chains and demand goes up and prices go down. But as rulemaking and guidance mature, manufacturers invest in regions, and the US develops its technologies further, I believe the workforce could grow from around 135,000 in 2025 to 550,000 or 600,000 in 2035—even more than currently predicted. If the workforce grows according to these predictions, it would be a boon to the EV industry at large and push it closer to its tipping point, in turn moving us closer to a net-zero future. 

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Environment & Climate
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