As I look out the floor-to-ceiling window of my new office as Technical Director at Electric Goddess, I can’t help but think back to the windowless basement where I started my electrochemistry journey as an intern at NASA Jet Propulsion Lab exactly 10 years ago. While I’ve come a long way in workspaces, I’ve also experienced a variety of other types of work environments along the way. From different managers, different company sizes, different funding sources for research, to different teams and parts of the industry, they’ve each made me who I am as a scientist and, now, a manager and director.

An article published by the Vancouver Sun recently highlighted how the battery industry is scrambling to hire talent capable of performing essential roles from mining to battery manufacturing. This article provided Canadian examples, but I see this even in the United States. More and more people are needed to innovate, develop, and implement this technology, especially as we race to end climate change.

The question is, where is this talent going to come from that will create this sustainable future?

Having been working in this industry for almost 6 years as a professional and 10 years as a researcher, I’ve seen a shift first-hand; those of us in the industry see how it’s the golden era for batteries right now, and the industry is just starting to form and boom. We’re excited for the accelerating innovations, the fact that the general public is excited about electrification, and that governments and investors are pumping money into our passion projects.

People are joining the battery industry from multiple sources:

  • University and trade-school students excited by the boom of the industry motivated by prospects of innovating, gaining respect as a battery innovator, and/or growing their wealth
  • Professionals who decide to pivot or change careers to enter the industry, bringing their experience in a different industry into this one

While there are millions applying for positions at companies like Tesla, the article above highlights that it’s not necessarily the quantity of people who can fill roles that is the concern; it’s the quality, the talent.

What is wild to me is that I feel surrounded by so many companies, organizations, and individuals pushing for creating accessible education for those seeking to work in the battery industry. I had a conversation with a business development manager at Rigaku, an analytical equipment company, who informed me that the company is doubling down on its effort to be a training source for those in the battery industry to learn battery research. In addition, there are non-profits like the Volta Foundation and private companies like Battery Associates that are developing trainings for the next-generation of battery innovators. The Ontario Vehicle Innovation Network (OVIN), an Ontario government-supported organization formerly called the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network is developing training on batteries to try to fill a 30,000 person worker gap in the automotive industry.

When I started my YouTube channel in 2019, I felt like NOBODY was talking about battery technology education, and just 3 years later it’s on the tip of everyone’s tongue.

Will all these educational programs and initiatives be enough to close the gap and develop talent?

I don’t think so. I feel like many have a blind-spot that only a few can see.

When I think about my own talent development, I often feel like the system and society got more in the way of my development than it helped.

  • I was accepted for an internship at NASA JPL doing thermoelectric research after my internship there on electrochemical research, but I had graduated and my non-student status blocked me from that opportunity.
  • My graduate school experience taught me just as much about materials science as it did about navigating harassment and bias in a toxic work environment, detracting from my learning opportunities in the field of my choice.
  • Throughout my life, people’s gender bias blocked my access to mentors and opportunities dating back to childhood when I was not allowed to work with tools even when I showed interest.

My concern is not “is there talent?” but “who is recognized for having the potential to be seen as talent?” and “who has access to be developed into talent?”

I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with and learn from some of the most technically brilliant people in the industry. With all of these exceptionally talented people I notice trends:

  • They began learning about science and engineering from a very young age, encouraged by their parents and friends as they grew up.
  • Their families were often technically-inclined; there were tools and equipment they could access from a young age.
  • They focused on technical learning throughout their entire life, always maintaining it as a priority to the point where they had to learn hard lessons about self-care because of neglect in that area.
  • They were given opportunities where failure did not cause them to be fired or lose opportunity. They were able to fail and try again until they solved the problem.
  • They had mentors who provided them with equipment, 1:1 training, access to information and opportunities, and connected them with their network.
  • They had financial support, for the most part, throughout their life so that they could spend money on equipment to further develop their skills, and the ability to take risks without fear of going completely destitute.

In all of these cases, it was not necessarily the educational programs that enabled them to surpass their peers and develop their talent to an outstanding level (in fact, some of the most brilliant technical minds I know dropped out of high school or college, and did most of their learning outside of formal education institutions). Many even report having to unlearn what they were taught in educational programs because the information was too theoretical, impractical, and lacked the big picture (like doing physics problems assuming no friction).

I argue that alongside developing educational programs, we must focus on developing solutions to address the root of the issue: equity and inclusion.

The fact that there is limited talent is not a fault of individuals not being smart enough or educated enough, but a lack of opportunities and access for ALL people who are interested in learning. If all people continue to not have access to personalized learning opportunities, there will continue to be a talent shortage and innovation will be stunted.

The good news is that companies and organizations are beginning to recognize that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) is an integral part of a sustainable future.

In the words of https://dei.extension.org/:

Diversity is the presence of differences that may include race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, socioeconomic status, language, (dis)ability, age, religious commitment, or political perspective.  Populations that have been-and remain- underrepresented among practitioners in the field and marginalized in the broader society.
Equity is promoting justice, impartiality and fairness within the procedures, processes, and distribution of resources by institutions or systems.  Tackling equity issues requires an understanding of the root causes of outcome disparities within our society.
Inclusion is an outcome to ensure those that are diverse actually feel and/or are welcomed.  Inclusion outcomes are met when you, your institution, and your program are truly inviting to all.  To the degree to which diverse individuals are able to participate fully in the decision-making processes and development opportunities within an organization or group.

Since the #MeToo Movement and Black Lives Matter in the late 2010s, there is a growing consensus and more data to back-up the truth that people must feel psychologically safe in order to do their best work, learn, and thrive.

In 2020 I founded The STEM Thrive Guides to provide resources to those navigating a career in science and engineering amidst different forms of oppression like bias and harassment. I never wanted anyone to go through what I experienced to have a career in a technical field.

With The STEM Thrive Guides I now work with organizations in industry and academia who want to embrace DE&I practices to fully stand behind their mission to work toward a sustainable and equitable future. I see the demand for knowledge on leading diverse teams as well as attracting and developing diverse talent growing, especially for booming industries like the battery industry.

Any educational program intended to develop talent must do more than simply convey textbook information to reach its goal; it must enable all students to learn and thrive by incorporating DE&I practices.

If you or your organization want to learn more about incorporating DE&I practices to attract talent and accelerate innovation, please contact me by clicking the button below. I’d love the opportunity to get to know you and help you solve challenges.

Jill Pestana, Founder of The STEM Thrive Guides