Windsor battery plant draws flood of applicants as hiring begins

Dave Waddell/The Windsor Star

When NextStar Energy posted for the first 130 job openings at its Windsor battery plant in August, it was both a first step towards building a 2,500-employee workforce and a litmus test for interest in a new industry.

Much to the surprise of NextStar officials, the openings in finance, human resources, communications and a mix of 100 engineers and technicians drew over 5,000 applications in the first week.

“It’s way more than that now,” said NextStar Energy’s planning director Sung Park. “We were very surprised by the response.

“We never had that response at our other factories in the U.S. Recently, we were hiring 10 people at a U.S. plant and we got 50 to 100 applicants.

“I think being the first Canadian battery plant, especially being in Windsor in the middle of the auto industry, there are people wanting to start something new.”

Park said the company is no longer worried about whether it will be able to attract the talent it needs for its Windsor facility, which is a joint venture with Stellantis. The geographic range of applicants has confirmed NextStar is going to have impressive pulling power.

In fact, Park was headed to Toronto late last week to conduct 10 job interviews after appearing at the 2023 Emerging Technologies in Automation Conference and Trade Show in Windsor.

“Before we started hiring, we thought most people would come from the Windsor area,” Park said.

“But we’re getting applications from the Greater Toronto Area, Vancouver, across the U.S. More than half the applications are from outside the Windsor area.”

A good percentage are coming from Canadians working in the automotive sector in the U.S.

Park said NextStar has filled 100 of those 130 positions and expects to have 150 employees by year’s end. The company will be ramping up hiring in the new year as it begins test production at the module factory in February.

“The next big hire will be late-March, April and it’ll be up to 200 for the module plant,” Park said. “At the same time, we’ll begin to hire another 500 for the cell plant to be phased in.”

The first machinery for the module plant is scheduled to arrive Dec. 14 at the Windsor site. Construction of the cell plant remains on track for production to begin in 2025.

Park assured the many local and Ontario companies in attendance at the Emerging Technologies conference that NextStar isn’t intending to harvest their talent.

“We have heard of this fear from local companies,” Park said. “We actually feel we’ll be bringing in many more workers to the area, not taking companies’ employees.”

Park said LG Energy Solutions, the parent company for NextStar, has seen the pattern before with its 12 plants and joint ventures around the world.

Being a new industry, there simply aren’t many experienced employees in the sector, so the company is prepared to invest significant sums of money in training its own workforce.

“We’re looking for people with mechanical, chemical or engineering experience,” Park said.

“We take that base of knowledge and train them. Our new hires are from food, agriculture and automation.”

NextStar Energy’s core members, engineers, supervisors and technicians, will be trained for six to eight months. That will include stints at LG Energy Solution plants in Poland, China and Korea, so they can return to train new hires in Windsor.

Park said LG has its own very specific ways and technologies that employees will be taught. That includes having a team charged with ensuring employees are happy and issues resolved, to avoid losing expensively trained workers.

“Our plants are very bright, clean and highly automated,” Park said. “The module plant will look like what people see in an automotive plant, but it will have nine manufacturing lines.

“The cell plant will look much different than any automotive or manufacturing plant. It will have 36 lines for cell production.”

The environment must remain so pure, there’ll be no motorized vehicles to move employees around what will be the largest industrial plant in Canada.

Park said when fully operational, the 49-gigawatt, 4.5-million-square-foot facility will produce two million batteries annually to supply the Windsor Assembly Plant and Stellantis’s collection of electric vehicle factories in Michigan.

Park outlined NextStar Energy’s vision for the Windsor plant and its supply chain based on its experience globally.

“There are four of our suppliers already here and building factories,” Park said.

“We expect up to 15 suppliers to build a battery hub here. They won’t supply just us, so Windsor is a good location near the border.”

Currently, most of the company’s materials for cell production come from Asia and will continue to do so in the short term.

“We’re using a supply chain through LG Energy Solution headquarters,” Park said. “They buy materials for every factory around the world and distribute them to each factory.

“So far, there have been no supply problems for any factory.”

However, Park said LG wants to shorten its supply chains. The company is intent on building a new supply chain featuring a heavy dose of Canadian critical minerals and local suppliers.

Park said rising logistic costs demand that materials and the parts supply be located as close to the plant as possible. 

“What we did in Korea, we taught companies to make things for us over more than 20 years,” Park said.

“Now, our goal is to spread that to local suppliers who will build the capacity to supply us.

“We have the know-how and technological expertise and we’re open to giving that to local suppliers.”

Though NextStar hasn’t yet signed any deals with local firms, Park expects that to happen as the plant gets closer to production. He said he expects regional companies will supply the module plant with the plastic components and trays required for the module factory.