In a competitive market, Elon Musk wants the best engineers at Tesla
Amidst higher demand for electric vehicles than ever, Tesla has faced a wide range of supply issues from semiconductors to battery materials and other components. But a little talked about demand issue facing Tesla is also related to its need to produce batteries: skilled engineers able to help develop EV batteries en masse.
Above: Elon Musk closely examines a FANUC robot (Flickr: Steve Jurvetson)
Elon Musk has always emphasized an engineering-first approach at Tesla. Not surprisingly, Tesla has bumped median salaries for battery engineers throughout the past few years, according to a report from Bloomberg. With median battery engineer salaries increasing to anywhere from $100,000 to $400,000 depending on an engineer’s experience and role, onlookers are left wondering if the growing industry might be worth a career change.
Qichao Hu, CEO of Ford- and General Motors-backed SES Artificial Intelligence, explains that the high demand for EV battery talent is going to require a change, saying that the industry isn’t sustainable with the bottleneck created by increasing prices — whether spent on employees or raw materials.
“A senior battery engineer in the U.S. sometimes can cost as much as a CFO,” said Hu. “This whole industry now, it’s not sustainable, from people to raw materials.”
The statements came just after SES faced a bidding war with Tesla, Rivian, GM and QuantumScape over a recently hired engineer. In the end, Tesla managed to garner the highest price for the candidate.
Another battery engineer working at a worldwide automaker told Bloomberg they were seeing requests on LinkedIn from recruiters at Rivian, Ford, Tesla, Amazon and Contemporary Amperex Technology Ltd. (CATL). And while engineering degrees may go a long way in getting one’s foot in the door, the competition is largely left to those with tangible EV engineering experience — in everything from R&D to raw materials and scaled production.
American Battery Technology CEO Ryan Melsert played a major role in Tesla’s early establishment of the Panasonic battery line at the automaker’s Nevada factory. Even when technology advances, automakers are struggling to find the line workers they need to support growth.
“It’s not even just the high-skilled, it’s the medium-skilled,” says Melsert. “They can’t find enough labor, even in northern Nevada, to justify expansion.”
Along with others from MIT, battery engineer and entrepreneur Yen T. Yeh founded the Volta Foundation. Through it, he has been in regular contact with universities and battery labs to address the growing workforce problem in the EV battery industry.
“Workforce development is the key issue,” he told me. “If we don’t solve this, Americans are not going to be the leader we want to be in the battery race.”
From ballooning battery costs to shortages of both raw materials and employees, Tesla has its hands full. However, with engineer salaries heading steadily upward over the last few years, it seems the few experienced engineers in the industry will win out big, at least for now.