As the nation moves toward the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, the auto industry will continue its shift toward manufacturing more electric vehicles. Electrification is not just a critical step toward cleaning our air and waterways, it’s also a huge opportunity to help ensure that working people of all races and backgrounds across Ohio, Michigan and Indiana can access good, family-sustaining jobs. Electrification could bring an exciting new era of shared prosperity to communities across the region.
However, that outcome is not guaranteed. Without strong federal policies and meaningful collaboration among all stakeholders, we risk another industrial dislocation, driven by global economic forces outside the control of American workers.
Our economic modeling at the MIT Roosevelt Project, shows the tri-state region could lose more than 560,000 jobs — including 50,000 motor vehicle manufacturing jobs — over just the next three decades. But with the right federal policies the clean energy transition could create more than 3 million new jobs in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, including 265,000 new manufacturing jobs.
To ensure this outcome, our research team recommends the formation of a federal Transportation Electrification Commission (TEC). The TEC should be jointly led by the White House and the industry and should include representatives from the Departments of Energy, Commerce, Labor and Transportation along with the full participation of unions, key manufacturers, related businesses and environmentally impacted communities.
The TEC can assure that EV tax credits result in quality American jobs, help states work together on developing domestic manufacturing, and decarbonize manufacturing through innovation, research and development, all while ensuring economic competitiveness. It can also monitor and remediate the environmental impact of manufacturing, deploy accessible, low carbon, mass transportation alternatives and mandate Community Benefit Agreements (CBA) for federal contracts, ensuring that local communities and neighborhoods’ needs are met.
The commission could also broker labor and management cooperation and address the growing disparities in wages and working conditions across the industry. Our research documents how the decline in unionization rates and manufacturing jobs has been a major contributor to growing inequality in America. In the mid 20th century, the motor vehicle industry, the United Auto Workers union, and the civil rights movement played a historic role in opening the door to the middle class to the Black community. But access to those quality jobs has been damaged by displacements that occurred from NAFTA and other trade agreements, resulting in a decline in the unionized automotive workforce — along with African American participation in it.
But by leveraging public investments in the transition to electrification, we can preserve the jobs in America’s historic motor vehicle manufacturing communities. For this reason, the Transportation Electrification Commission should report to the American people on an annual basis on how its priorities are being met.
Skepticism among current autoworkers as well as low-income and fence-line communities that the transition will benefit them is real, and we can’t ignore it. To deal with that skepticism, in addition to the TEC reporting back to the public, the federal government must urgently mobilize and coordinate the delivery of its resources with transparency, community input, and accountability. Without strongly articulated policies that aggressively address a hesitant public, existing skepticism could become a real obstacle to the goals of widespread adoption of electric vehicles.
That is how a new industrial policy can convert skepticism to patriotism. Our region’s history of innovation and hard work has seen us through before. By centering the principles of equity and justice and striving to provide policy recommendations that are feasible and adaptable, we can do it again. We can’t afford not to.
David Foster is a visiting scholar at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He served as senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz from 2014 to 2017 on energy, environmental, climate, economic development, workforce development and labor relations issues.