It’s time for SK Battery America in Commerce, Ga., to hire the first 1,000 workers it will need to start making electric vehicle batteries in 2021. But SK has a special challenge: How do you hire and train a new work force in the middle of a deadly pandemic?
SK isn’t the only company sorting out the unprecedented complication. Workers from Detroit to Dallas are a little hesitant to come in for job interviews these days.
“The biggest challenge we face is due to the pandemic,” said Jade Park, the battery project’s human resources manager. “We have to be very careful and very creative in everything we’re doing in recruiting, interviewing and training. It slows things down a little bit, but it has gotten the creative ideas flowing.”
SK, a South Korean electronics, energy and EV battery supplier, is investing $2.6 billion to construct a plant north of Atlanta to produce battery systems for Volkswagen and Ford Motor Co. But to build those systems, the plant needs a work force.
On top of the first 1,000 people, SK will hire 1,600 more workers in the months to follow. The project originally set its head count needs at 2,000. But as the pandemic took hold, SK’s business forecast grew. It increased its investment plans for the site, and it upped its hiring needs to 2,600 by 2024.
Creating a large factory work force is a huge undertaking even under normal circumstances. Auto plant projects require state and local agencies to shoulder much of the effort, along with involvement from local technical colleges and third-party employment firms.
Recruitment drives have been even harder over the past two years because of record low U.S. unemployment, a nationwide shortage of available workers and growing competition from big, well-paying nonmanufacturing employers, such as Amazon and The Home Depot.
But things have gotten even hairier now.
Before the pandemic arrived, SK held a preliminary job fair to get out the word about its upcoming hiring opportunities. About 400 people came to an auditorium at Lanier Technical College, a nearby public tech school that will be handling SK’s training efforts. It was a lively social event with refreshments and a great deal of hand-shaking and close interactions.
Fast-forward to the coronavirus era: This month, SK is holding another job fair at the college — but this time it’s out in the parking lot.
“It’s a drive-through job fair,” Park said. “We’re all keeping our distance from each other.”