CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Programs to re-train coal miners and reinvigorate West Virginia’s suffering workforce have been proposed before. Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin said Friday many have been a disappointment because there were no jobs.
“All that ended up being was basically an extension of unemployment benefits because no jobs came because there's no factories," Manchin said. The senator said that's changing with the announcement of a new electric battery plant coming to the state this year.
The energy startup SPARKZ is partnering with the United Mine Workers of America to recruit and train dislocated miners to be the factory’s first production workers.
“Now, we're seeing the rubber hit the road," Manchin said. "That makes a difference.”
Energy Secretary Jennifer Mulhern Granholm and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland joined Manchin and UMWA representatives at Marshall University's Robert C. Byrd Institute to discuss workforce development opportunities.
Granholm announced a $5 million training initiative, the first in the nation to focus on battery workers. The funds will be split among five U.S. sites, and she hinted that West Virginia is likely to be a recipient.
“I think you'll be well-positioned, I'll just say that,” she said.
The energy secretary said the steps are necessary to ensure that the U.S. is “energy independent” and not relying on countries like China for the supplies.
“We should be building the full supply chain here,” she said.
UMWA International Secretary-Treasurer Brian Sanson said although workforce training has been offered to the state's workers before, West Virginia hasn't seen most of the benefits.
“In the past, we've spent a lot of money retraining workers to go out of state to do other jobs," he said. "That's one of the biggest problems.”
SPARKZ said its electric battery factory in West Virginia will employ at least 350 people.
SPARKZ Founder and CEO Sanjiv Malhotra said these batteries will be 100% cobalt-free, reducing the cost of U.S. lithium-ion battery production. The Democratic Republic of Congo has historically been the top producer of cobalt worldwide, with most mines controlled by Chinese companies.
Malhotra said the operation will be a boon to U.S. efforts to counter China’s dominance, and a major step for West Virginia as the state transitions from its roots in coal production to the “new energy economy,” he said.
SPARKZ, founded in 2019, is in the final stages of site selection, and will be announcing customer partnerships in the coming months. Its first markets will likely be in material-handling vehicles like forklifts, agricultural equipment and energy storage.