BlueGreen Alliance | Clean Cars, Clean Air, Good Jobs Blog Series: Part Two – Good Auto Manufacturing Jobs Sustain the Vehicles—and Clean Economy—of the Future

Clean Cars, Clean Air, Good Jobs Blog Series: Part Two – Good Auto Manufacturing Jobs Sustain the Vehicles—and Clean Economy—of the Future

March 18, 2024

By Gerald D. Taylor, Research and Policy Analyst

As noted in Part One of this series, we have much to gain by adopting clean vehicle standards. They safeguard our environment and public health by cutting greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution from the transportation sector, and they can help create and protect good union jobs by driving global competitiveness and technological innovation in the domestic automotive industry.

And yet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most recently proposed vehicle emissions standards have so far faced intense criticism from automakers. This isn’t surprising—industries tend to resist regulations that require them to change their behavior. But one facet of the industry’s criticism of these standards is particularly insidious: the idea that electric vehicles (EVs), which are an important clean vehicle technology that automakers may deploy to meet the clean vehicle standards, require less labor to build than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. This has become a constant refrain among those who claim that the mass-market EV transition will decimate auto manufacturing jobs. With this argument, automakers are hiding behind a disingenuous concern for their workforce to oppose clean vehicle standards.

Underlying this idea that EVs require fewer labor hours is the intuitive assumption that the best way to quantify the amount of labor it takes to build a vehicle is simply to count the number of parts that it contains—a vehicle composed of fewer parts will require less labor, and thus fewer workers, to assemble. But recent research from Carnegie Mellon University challenges this underlying assumption. A better approach, according to this research, is to seek a more nuanced understanding of industrial manufacturing processes themselves, which would enable a more accurate evaluation of how labor demands in the auto manufacturing sector are likely to evolve at the EV transition progresses.

Here, we will summarize the key insights from this research, and explain how they can inform our vision of what a just transition to EVs should look like. In short, better analytical tools for industrial processes demonstrate that EV manufacturing requires as many, if not more, labor hours than ICE vehicle manufacturing, and that these labor hours are concentrated in the manufacturing of complex EV battery components. This underscores the importance of securing a competitive domestic supply chain for EVs and their key components, powered by high quality, community-sustaining, union jobs.

The Carnegie Mellon Analysis: Parts vs. Processes

When Ford CEO Jim Farley declared that EVs will require 40% less labor to build than ICE vehicles, he lent legitimacy to a commonly expressed concern about the coming EV transition. It is well known that EVs contain fewer moving parts, and fewer parts overall, than their ICE counterparts. Researchers and commentators standardly infer from this fact that a mass-market EV transition would reduce employment in the automotive sector. The idea is that the more parts a vehicle contains, the more time it takes to assemble, and the more time it takes to assemble a vehicle, the more labor that assembly will require. According to a study from Carnegie Mellon University, however, this parts-based analysis, though intuitively sound, is ultimately flawed.

A vehicle’s relative lack of parts does not straightforwardly equate to fewer labor hours in its assembly. That further conclusion could only be supported by a more nuanced understanding of the processes by which those parts are assembled into vehicles. This is especially true given that, as the Carnegie Mellon study points out, the EV transition will involve a shift from the largely mechanical processes typical in ICE vehicle manufacturing, to the more electrochemical processes required to produce EV batteries and related components.

What we need, then, is an analysis that takes into account the specific nature of relevant industrial manufacturing processes, and not simply part counts. And that is precisely what the Carnegie Mellon study sought to provide. In cooperation with industry insiders, they collected data on the labor-hour requirements of key steps in the manufacturing processes for both EV and ICE vehicle powertrains. They analyzed that data under a number of models from prior research on this topic.

Contrary to popular belief, they found that in all scenarios that they studied, EV powertrains actually required more labor hours to build than ICE vehicle powertrains—in one scenario, EV powertrains even required twice as many labor hours. Furthermore, these labor hours are densely concentrated in the manufacturing of EV batteries’ components, such as anodes, cathodes, and separators.

Three Takeaways

If the Carnegie Mellon analysis is on the right track, then it strongly suggests that the dominant narrative about EV labor intensity is simply mistaken—EVs will not require less labor to build than their ICE vehicle counterparts. And this has a number of important ramifications for understanding what it will take to make the EV transition just.

Takeaway #1: Clean vehicle standards remain important as ever.

As noted above, EPA is currently working to finalize a multi-pollutant emissions standard for light- and medium-duty vehicles. The standards have faced bad-faith criticism from industry stakeholders who claim that the rule effectively mandates a transition to EVs, and that this transition will negatively impact auto manufacturing employment. But both of these claims are false.

To start, EPA’s proposed standards are technology-neutral, which means that automakers are free to decide how they will comply with the emissions and pollution targets set by EPA. Analysis from the Environmental Defense Fund finds that automakers who don’t want to sell any EVs can still satisfy EPA’s proposed standard through the deployment of other emissions reduction and fuel economy technologies like gas particulate filters and hybrids. It is simply false to claim that these standards constitute a mandate to build and sell EVs.

Additionally, as demonstrated by the authors of the Carnegie Mellon study, a process-based analysis comparing EV and ICE powertrain manufacturing finds that even automakers that entirely transition their fleets to EVs should not thereby cause upstream reductions in labor requirements. Those criticizing these standards along these lines seem less focused on protecting workers and more on co-opting their voices and interests in opposition to clean vehicle standards.

Takeaway #2: We must be intentional about retaining and retraining the incumbent auto manufacturing workforce.

First and foremost, today’s auto workers care about good paying, high-quality jobs in safe and equitable work environments—no matter the fuel source of the final product. Policymakers and automakers must work together to put incumbent auto manufacturing workers first in line for employment and training opportunities related to building clean and electric vehicles.

The Carnegie Mellon study’s process-based analysis facilitates a more nuanced understanding of the skills required to perform jobs in the EV supply chain. While much of the EV supply chain is identical to the ICE vehicle supply chain (all vehicles need wheels, axels, tires, and frames), parts of the EV manufacturing process are different, and require different sorts of skills from the workers who are steering those processes. EV manufacturing processes come with unique safety hazards, and  EV manufacturing will require much more in the way of ‘soft’ skills like critical thinking, teaching, social perceptiveness, and teamwork.

It seems, then, that while this new research eases some concerns about the quantity of jobs that will be required to build EVs, it also highlights some others about the preparedness of the incumbent workforce to actually do that work. And if we want to support the incumbent auto manufacturing workforce to the greatest possible degree, we must start by ensuring that they will be retrained on the specific skills that EV manufacturing requires. Many of these skills can be developed and strengthened on the job, but others will require more time, investment, and planning.

Takeaway #3: We must build a competitive, domestic EV supply chain.

Even if the relative simplicity of EV powertrains doesn’t necessarily equate to less labor in the EV supply chain, policymakers and advocates must work together to ensure that these jobs are located here in the U.S., and that they are desirable, community-sustaining jobs in safe and diverse manufacturing facilities where workers have the free and fair choice to join a union. This is a particular priority for workers in the auto supply chain, as well as for the communities they live in, considering that the United States already relies heavily on non-domestic sources for the critical materials and components that go into EVs. Indeed, the Economic Policy Institute estimates that without concrete policy actions aimed at onshoring the EV supply chain, we risk losing tens of thousands of auto manufacturing jobs within just the next few years.

For the sake of our auto manufacturing workers, it is crucial that we invest in onshoring the most critical parts of the EV supply chain, and ensure that the new facilities support high quality, community-sustaining jobs. By expanding the use of domestic content requirements and by supporting retooling efforts at upstream manufacturing facilities, we can develop competitive supply chains not just for battery packs and EVs themselves, but also for the materials and components that go into them.


Read Part One of the series here.

Read Part Three of the series here.