Wanted: SK Battery job candidates to brave COVID-19

Industry

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.”

Interested job seekers will stay in their cars. SK employees and college officials will come out in masks to meet them. Early SK hires will help direct traffic and take the temperatures of those who want to converse, and the exchange of printed materials will be kept to a minimum.

This is also how job interviewing is taking place now, Park reports. Candidates interested in an hourly operator position drive to an interview and remain in their car, and Park or her team members speak with them through the window.

Candidates for engineering jobs, supervisor positions, accountants and professionals are being interviewed online, through Zoom meetings. The company will ask for more than one Zoom call if it feels a candidate was nervous about the videoconference or if technical difficulties garbled the conversation.

In some cases, a candidate will need to visit for an in-person discussion. Those meetings are kept to only three participants and limited to 30 minutes.

When the reality of the health crisis was becoming apparent, Park says, she wondered how it would hamper SK’s timetable. But the company, the tech school and the state of Georgia immediately devised a plan of action to steer through the crisis.

Every night, Park and her team held phone conferences with SK engineers and planners in Korea to orchestrate a new schedule. Instead of hiring and training workers in groups of 200, as it planned to do, SK would aim smaller, hiring just 20 employees at a time. That would mean new hires could move through smaller training classes, lowering the chance of virus spread. The classes also went paperless.

It is a slower process, but Park says that SK is staying on schedule.

“I do miss the in-person interviews,” she acknowledged. “It’s a lot better in person, of course. Usually in those live interactions, I can gauge the chemistry.

“But we value teamwork and collaboration in the employees we hire,” Park added. “So people who handle all this well are making a good impression.”

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