Ford and GM are going all in on electric cars, and thousands of jobs hang in the balance
In Dearborn, just outside Detroit, the auto industry’s past and future face each other across an access road.
The location is Rouge River, the sprawling century-old factory complex where Ford Motor Co. made Model A’s for the masses. One of the busiest plants on the 600-acre campus churns out the gas-powered F-150 pickup, America’s bestselling vehicle for the past four decades and Ford’s most profitable model.
But just across the street stands a building whose signage places it in a new era: the Rouge Electric Vehicle Center. In late April, that plant produced the first batch of the Lightning battery-electric version of the F-150—a model that could be poised to become the first Detroit-made EV hit.
The juxtaposition of Ford’s past and future represents not only the company’s $50 billion bet on EVs, but the larger story playing out across the global automotive industry. The new Rouge plant is a litmus test for American consumers, and the Lightning is Ford’s most important launch since the Model T. It’s a way for Ford to prove that it can master the transition to software-based, battery-electric vehicles—to successfully build and sell something that’s less like a workaday truck and more akin to an iPhone that can tow 10,000 pounds.
“That gives us a chance to redefine the company like we did in the teens and ’20s with the Model T,” Ford CEO Jim Farley tells Fortune.
Detroit’s three legacy automakers—General Motors; Ford; and Stellantis, the European joint venture that owns Chrysler—are all in the redefinition business. They’re investing a combined $120 billion to put millions of EVs on the road by 2030. And that collective investment—even more than the automotive industry’s past twists and turns—is remaking the Motor City, creating a seismic shift in how its residents think, work, and live.
People want to work for a company that’s going to change the world. When we announced that we were going to make the whole light-duty fleet electric, we saw applications go up.Mary Barra, CEO, General Motors
Some of this remaking is literal rebuilding, as the Detroit Three repurpose factories for the EV era. Some is corporate, as they develop and acquire businesses that focus on software and EV battery tech. But the trickiest remaking is one of human resources—as the electric transition ripples through an automotive industry that employs 290,000 people in Michigan.
What most people in Detroit acknowledge, but few like to discuss, is that even a successful transition means fewer traditional jobs in the auto industry. The forces driving the change are twofold: Battery packs have fewer parts than internal combustion engines (ICEs)—so EVs require about 30% fewer hours of labor on the assembly line. As Farley puts it, “The manufacturing jobs are going to go from making oily things to digital things.”
At the same time, the electrified powertrains of EVs require electrical engineers, software developers, and all manner of technicians. And the increasingly complex software systems that EVs rely on will need their own cadres of programmers, researchers, and designers. The industry’s center of gravity, in short, is shifting from the assembly line to the computer workbench.
In its best-case scenario, Michigan’s state government forecasts the creation of up to 300,000 new jobs across the electrification ecosystem, from battery manufacturing and recycling to service and charging networks. But some existing jobs are bound to disappear. Over the next few years, the U.S. will start shedding nearly one-third of its automotive factory jobs, according to Don Grimes, a labor economist at the University of Michigan. And state officials have estimated that the overall shift could affect 60% of Michigan’s automotive workforce, putting 170,000 workers in a position where they’ll need to learn new skills—or find work in another industry.
More than any other American companies, Ford and GM—which employ 50,000 and 52,000 people in Michigan, respectively—will make the decisions that reshape that workforce. And as they become more digital, they’ll face a different dilemma: They’ll be competing for talent not only with each other and other legacy automakers, but with EV pioneer Tesla and with countless other tech-driven industries that need programmers and engineers.
Those applicants are signing up for a bumpy ride. Despite their eye-popping investments and production goals, the legacy automakers’ electric future is not guaranteed. For now, Detroit’s accelerated EV pace is fueled more by government mandates than by consumer demand: EVs represented just 4% of the 15 million new vehicles sold in the U.S. in 2021, though the share is quickly growing. And supply-chain challenges, including shortages of semiconductors and raw materials for batteries, rising inflation, and disruptions stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and COVID-related factory shutdowns in China, are making the logistics and finances of EVs even thornier.
Amid that uncertainty, the only certainty is that the city that put America on wheels needs to buckle in for the most momentous transition in its history.
Mary Barra, for one, is bullish about the talent battle. “What we’re finding when we hire is that people want to work for a company that’s going to change the world,” GM’s CEO tells Fortune during an interview in a mid-century modern office at the GM Global Technical Center in Warren, Mich. “They want to work for a company that shares their values. When we made our announcement that we were going to make the whole light-duty fleet electric by 2035, we actually saw applications go up.”
Both Ford and GM have experimented with EVs for years, but it’s hard to overstate how much they’ve recently accelerated that commitment. Barra announced in January 2021 that GM would phase out ICE vehicles by 2035. Ford hasn’t committed to a full phaseout, but it now aims to get 50% of sales from EVs by 2030. This March, Ford formalized its transformation with a restructuring that separated its EV business, now called Ford Model e, from its ICE business, Ford Blue. Wall Street embraced Ford’s decision, positing that strong cash flows from Blue could support Ford’s EV expansion.
That dynamic, of internal-combustion profits paying for a zero-emissions future, has already helped both companies overhaul their physical assets. It shows most dramatically in factory footprints across Metro Detroit, where they’re closing old plants, opening new ones, and retooling gas-engine factories to build EVs instead. These real estate decisions have far-reaching repercussions, from the tax base for municipal water to the vitality of the 24-hour Coney Island diners where second- and third-shifters gather after work.
One of the highest-profile conversions is Factory Zero, GM’s new name for its nearly 40-year-old plant in Hamtramck. GM spent $2.2 billion to retool it for EVs, including the battery-electric Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Hummer pickup trucks; President Biden flew into town for its grand opening in November, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan gave his State of the City address there in March. Ford, meanwhile, has invested $700 million outfitting the Rouge complex to build the Lightning; $185 million building Ford Ion Park, a battery laboratory near Detroit Metro Airport; and $250 million on smaller local plants to increase production capacity for the Lightning.
Barra argues that all this production infrastructure gives Detroit a distinct advantage over other cities in the electrification race. Even as software becomes a core part of the vehicle, “we’re still very proud of the fact that we make things,” she says. “As others come into this industry, they’re recognizing the manufacturing piece is hard.”
“We actually have a position of strength that we took for granted for many years,” agrees Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto, the association for Michigan’s automotive companies. “There is no denser cluster in the world of automotive and mobility engineering and manufacturing than in Michigan.” Converting the cluster, Detroit’s honchos argue, is easier than starting from scratch.
GM and Ford are also building more new businesses around EV platforms. At GM, for example, the in-house Innovation Lab has incubated BrightDrop, a commercial-delivery EV maker that has contracts to produce vans for FedEx and Walmart; BrightDrop is now hiring hundreds of engineers, software developers, and product designers in Palo Alto, Detroit, and Atlanta. GM also expects the self-driving car company Cruise, of which it is majority shareholder, to produce its first commercial model, the Cruise Origin shuttle, next year at Factory Zero: GM believes Cruise sales to ride-hailing and rental-car companies could become a $50-billion-a-year business by 2030.
In our conversation, Barra gets particularly animated about Ultifi—the cloud-based subscription software service GM is developing. Slated to arrive next year, Ultifi will essentially be the operating system for GM vehicles, capable of regularly upgrading itself like your smartphone does (and Teslas do): The company says it could generate as much as $25 billion a year in revenue by 2030. Ultifi owners could essentially download automotive features that are currently on the drawing board—like using cameras for facial recognition to start the vehicle, or communicating with drivers’ smart-home applications—without having to buy a new car. Ultifi will interact with third-party apps too; and in an era when software controls more functions on every vehicle, it’ll be an efficient way to repair any bugs.
“The whole concept is that your vehicle can get better as you own it,” says Barra. “Two or three years from now, I can get a feature that didn’t even exist when I bought the vehicle, which is a whole way to reimagine the business.”
Reimagining the business, of course, means reimagining the workforce: The lingering question is who will fill the retooled factories and at what kind of wages. The skills to build, say, a Ford Mustang are not the same ones needed to create an iPhone on wheels.
All three legacy automakers are quick to dispel the idea that metro Detroit’s traditional assembly line jobs could fade away, to be supplanted by a smaller, savvier workforce. “That’s the first important expectation—that we should not be afraid of change,” Stellantis’s Amsterdam-based CEO, Carlos Tavares, tells Fortune. “There will be some change in the general assembly of the vehicles, but nothing that would be scary.”
GM points to Factory Zero to refute fears of layoffs. “The notion that we’re shrinking, that electrification means less jobs, is not the way that we see it,” says Jim Quick, the plant’s executive director. “We’ve announced that we’re going to have about 2,200 jobs–plus. We haven’t had 2,200-plus jobs here in quite some time.” Most of those jobs are unionized: The United Auto Workers union has leaned on the Detroit Three to make sure its members don’t get left behind in the transition.
The EV revolution is going to cost a lot of jobs, but so does almost all technological progress. Think of how many secretarial jobs have been eliminated by computers.Don Grimes, Labor economist, University of Michigan
That said, for workers with “analog” backgrounds, building EV powertrains and batteries requires new training. At GM’s Orion Assembly plant, the entire 1,000-plus person workforce pivoted in 2020 from making gas-engine cars to building the Chevrolet Bolt EV, retraining along the way. (GM says the plant’s workforce will more than triple when it starts making EV pickup trucks.) Many Factory Zero staff underwent reskilling, too. Barra sees retraining as having benefits beyond job preservation: It’s a chance to retool the culture so that opportunities are based on workers’ skills rather than academic credentials. “I think that’s going to open up [advancement] to a whole other realm of people, who don’t think everything has to be done by a four-year degree,” she says.
A wide range of other public and private stakeholders are also developing new educational programs around EV skills. The State of Michigan is awarding grants for groups to develop curriculums for certifications for EV occupations, including dealership technicians and electricians for charging stations. Even Silicon Valley’s behemoths are getting in on the act. Last summer, Apple opened a Detroit developer academy; it just finished providing its first 100-person cohort, ages 18 to 60, with 10 months of free training in coding and app development. And Google plans to hold free coding classes in the city to help prepare high school students for high-tech jobs, starting next year.
Duggan, Detroit’s three-term mayor, has done his share of lobbying to keep EV jobs local. Talking with a reporter in his 11th-floor City Hall office, Duggan recalls making his case to the Big Three: “I told them, ‘I want you not just to build your electric vehicles here, but I want the entrepreneurs who are designing the electric and automated vehicles of the future to want to locate here.’ ” When Fiat Chrysler was mulling where to build its new Jeep Grand Cherokee plug-in hybrid models, the city offered to handle hiring through job fairs and prescreenings for Detroit residents. In exchange, the automaker made a $1.6 billion commitment to convert its Mack Avenue Engine Complex into a factory that can build EV powertrains; it reopened in June 2021.
“If you put your plant in Detroit, you’re going to have huge help with the workforce,” Duggan says. “If you want to build someplace 40 miles out of Chicago in a cornfield, your hiring is going to be more challenging.”
Still, not every current worker will have a job waiting for them in the electric era. “The EV revolution is going to cost a lot of jobs,” says Grimes, the labor economist. “But so does almost all technological progress. Think of how many secretarial jobs have been eliminated by computers.” That said, he adds, “it has been a challenge for people to change careers and to move to new towns, but it has ultimately been worth it.” The long-term challenge in Detroit: making sure that retraining and reskilling give people the skills to keep working, even if it means changing professions.
Running in parallel with the retraining is the automakers’ campaign to attract white-collar tech types—which doesn’t necessarily mean attracting them to Detroit. When GM began a few years ago to replace retirees with fresh software talent, the recruitment pitch was not unduly difficult, Barra says. But not all of them are coming to Michigan. The automaker is also staffing up in San Francisco; in Tel Aviv; and at its technical center in Markham, Ontario, where the nearby University of Waterloo is, as Barra notes, “a huge feeder pool to Silicon Valley.”
GM plans to hire 8,000 technical workers this year alone, but it’s giving business-unit managers discretion about where to hire. “This approach helps us compete with tech companies, especially in areas like software, analytics, and AVs [autonomous vehicles],” a spokesman says. “With the remote economy and the absolute thirst for software engineers, [automakers are] going to be flexible, just like Microsoft or Google or Amazon,” says Stevens of MICHauto.
Detroit isn’t terra incognita for coders and engineers: Ford and GM already employ thousands of developers here, and younger techies are already reshaping the city on the surface. If assembly line workers tend to live in bungalows in Sterling Heights or St. Clair Shores and spend weekends at their cottages in Mid-Michigan or the Upper Peninsula, the software crowd is more likely to own condos downtown and spend nights at dining spots like Shelby, a James Beard Award–semifinalist cocktail bar housed in a former bank vault.
But automakers are also developing the kinds of collaborative spaces that draw adventurous STEM talent. Ford is investing $525 million in workforce development around the U.S. by 2026, and one of its most visible efforts is its Research & Engineering Center in Dearborn, a 2-million-square-foot campus that it is redesigning to educate 20,000 Ford designers, engineers, and product developers—the foot soldiers of the EV revolution—by 2025.
Other spaces reach across corporate boundaries. On one downtown artery, an unassuming parking garage houses the Detroit Smart Parking Lab, a new joint effort among Ford, parts supplier Bosch, the State of Michigan, and Bedrock, the commercial real estate firm owned by Quicken Loans cofounder Dan Gilbert.
Operated by the nonprofit American Center for Mobility, the space serves as a collaborative test bed for automotive technology, from charging stations to cloud-based services. Participating companies range from Enterprise Rent-A-Car to Hevo, a startup focused on wireless charging for EVs. “Many of the projects we see, they’re one piece of a puzzle,” said Reuben Sarkar, president and CEO of the mobility center. “By having this laboratory space, we’re actually forming collaborations that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”
Perhaps the most striking emblem of collaboration is Michigan Central Station. One of the city’s most visible examples of urban blight since the last Amtrak train departed in 1988, the once-grand Beaux Arts building in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood is still surrounded by barbed wire to discourage vandals and squatters. But Ford has invested $950 million to develop the property as a hub for cooperation on transportation tech. Slated to open next year, the complex will house a big cadre of techies from Ford, as well as “landing pads” for other companies, like Google and self-driving car company Argo AI. The center will be a place where innovators can develop, test, and launch technology around autonomous vehicles, public transit, smart roads, and EV infrastructure. And about half of the 5,000 employees on the campus will come from Ford’s workforce—creating a pipeline from the innovation frontier back to the parent company.
Detroit has been synonymous with the U.S. auto industry for so long that it’s easy to forget that most of its domestic production takes place elsewhere. Each of the Big Three makes the majority of its traditional vehicles outside Michigan state lines, and the same will be true of EVs.
GM spent $2 billion retooling its complex in Spring Hill, Tenn.—already its largest facility in North America—to build a range of EVs, including the Cadillac Lyriq, the first battery-electric model from that brand. And that’s a fraction of the $11.4 billion Ford and South Korea’s SK Innovation are investing in Tennessee and Kentucky: The Blue Oval City complex—which will build electric F-Series pickups and advanced batteries—in Stanton, Tenn., and twin battery factories in Glendale, Ky., will together create 11,000 jobs.
Indeed, the increasing globalization of Ford and GM have prompted some local officials to question whether taxpayer money spent on retraining auto workers and attracting tech talent might be better spent elsewhere, including on infrastructure and public education. (Barra, in her conversation with Fortune, highlighted the city’s beleaguered school system as an obstacle for families considering moving to Detroit.)
At the same time, Michigan and Detroit are less dependent on the auto industry than they were in the 20th century. The logistics, finance, health care, and IT industries have all created steady job growth in the region. Detroit’s unemployment rate remains much higher than the national average, at around 10%, but the local economy is in far better shape than it was in the Great Recession, when GM, Chrysler, and the City of Detroit itself all declared bankruptcy.
In short, Detroit is no longer a comeback story. The stakes for the city in the EV transition have to do with quality rather than quantity: Ford, GM, and local officials don’t necessarily want to make more cars here, but they want the Motor City’s workers to remain at the heart of EV innovation—in design, in connectivity, in autonomous driving.
“After decades of struggling to redefine the city’s identity,” Ford’s Farley says, “we’re starting to find our mojo again.” That mojo is palpable in new EV-centric spaces like Factory Zero and the Parking Lab, where Detroit seems to crackle with new energy.
Next year, in downtown Detroit, some of that energy will be made visible. On a stretch of blacktop in the Michigan Central Station district, local officials will unveil the country’s first public electrified roadway. Developed by Israeli company Electreon and the Michigan Department of Transportation, the infrastructure embedded beneath the road will recharge EVs wirelessly while they drive, park, or wait in traffic. The roadway won’t be far from the intersection where Detroit introduced the country’s first three-color, four-way traffic light more than 100 years ago—yet another hopeful juxtaposition of Detroit’s future and its past.
The great electric bet
America’s Big Three automakers—Fortune 500 giants Ford and General Motors, and Chrysler, now owned by Amsterdam-based Stellantis—have collectively pledged more than $120 billion over the next few years to convert more of their production lines to electric vehicles. Here’s how their bets stack up.
Ford Motor Co.
50% of sales to come from EVs by 2030
$50 billion in EV plants, software, and training through 2026
Ford will focus first on electrifying its top-selling models, most notably the F-150 Lightning pickup, whose gas-powered version has been a top seller for four decades.
Key early EV models:
F-150 Lightning, Mustang Mach-E SUV, and E-Transit commercial van (all on sale now).
100% of global sales to come from EVs by 2035
$35 billion in EV and autonomous-vehicle technology through 2025
GM plans to launch 30 new EVs globally by 2025, almost all of them new models rather than updates of older ones.
Key early EV models:
Cadillac Lyriq SUV and GMC Hummer pickup (on sale now); Hummer SUV and Chevrolet Silverado pickup (2023).
100% of European sales and 50% of North American sales to come from EVs by 2030
$35.5 billion in electrification, software, and technology through 2025
In North America, Stellantis has focused to date on plug-in hybrid versions of popular models, but it plans to launch at least 25 new EV nameplates.
Key early EV models:
Chrysler Pacifica and Jeep Grand Cherokee 4xe (on sale now); Jeep Wagoneer 4xe (later this year).
CORRECTIONS/CLARIFICATIONS: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of Ford employees that are slated to work at the Michigan Central Station complex; it also misidentified the Cadillac Lyriq as a sedan. The article has been updated to more specifically identify the location of a planned electrified roadway.
This article appears in the June/July 2022 issue of Fortune with the headline, “The electric car is remaking Detroit”
Ford and General Motors rank No. 22 and No. 25 on the 2022 Fortune 500. See the full list here.