Editorials, Opinion

New factory to bring jobs, but will they be good ones?

Few things get West Virginians more excited than news that a new industry is coming to the state — and bringing jobs with it.

Earlier this month, Sparkz Inc. announced it plans to open an electric battery “Gigafactory” in West Virginia by the end of 2022, though the specific location hasn’t yet been chosen.

The new Sparkz facility will focus on cobalt-free lithium batteries in hopes of filling in supply chain gaps. At the moment, China dominates lithium-ion battery production. It not only produces the finished product, but it’s the world’s third largest producer of unrefined lithium behind Australia and Chile. Overall, the Asian superpower controls around 72% of the global market for electric batteries from start to finish, according to One Charge.

Even though the U.S. isn’t a big lithium producer (there are only a few viable deposits), bringing the final stages of production stateside allows America to be more self-sufficient and to promote local jobs. That said, technology advancements have figured out how to extract lithium from seawater and geothermal brine. As the technology becomes cheaper and more refined, we may see more lithium being harvested locally.

In the big picture, this electric battery facility is one small step toward cleaner energy and bridging supply chain gaps, but on a smaller, more local scale, this factory is a big deal.

Sparkz has made the commitment to hiring former coal miners and West Virginia is likely to receive about $1 million in federal money for a retraining initiative.

This won’t be the Mountain State’s first go at retraining former miners. Such programs have been around since at least 2019, but previous attempts weren’t exactly successful.

As Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said a few years ago, there are multiple examples of programs that retrained former miners very well in a new trade — but there were no jobs available. And when there are, the jobs aren’t offering comparable salaries, instead starting people at $12 to $15 per hour, or even as low as minimum wage.

When the pay isn’t there — or the jobs, period — retrained workers leave for greener pastures and that can mean out of state.

So while we’re as excited as the rest of the state to hear Sparkz’s plans to build a factory here and employ former miners, we hope Sparkz commits to paying those workers not just a livable wage, but a wage that reflects the years of work they’ve already put in and the time and effort it took to learn new skills so they can be the employees Sparkz needs.

If it doesn’t, welcoming the new industry will have done little to improve West Virginia’s economic situation, and worse, it may even run off some of West Virginia’s hardest workers.