STOREY COUNTY, Nev. — In spring 2017, Las Vegas High School senior Isabelle West, months away from graduation, had a wrench thrown in her postsecondary plans.
“I just got a denial letter from UNLV — I was one GPA point off,” said West, who didn’t have a safety school to latch onto. “I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
That is, until she learned about Tesla’s new Manufacturing Development Program, offered through Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) Nevada.
The program gives Nevada high school students the opportunity to work full-time as production associates at the Tesla Gigafactory in Northern Nevada. Planted east of Reno-Sparks in Storey County, the 1.9-million-square-foot-and-growing factory manufactures electric batteries, including motors for the Model 3, Tesla’s first mass-market vehicle.========== RELATED: Tesla layoffs will impact staff at Gigafactory near Reno ==========
Graduates in the apprenticeship program also have the option of receiving an education in automation and robotics at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno.
What’s more, the program offers housing near the University of Nevada, Reno campus, a daily shuttle service to the Gigafactory, federally funded relocation assistance, and professional development opportunities, such as financial literacy seminars.
“I thought it was a great opportunity and fallback plan,” said West, who became part of the program’s pilot group of 13 graduates who hit the Gigafactory floor running in September 2017. “Even though it’s not UNLV, it’s something I could at least look at and see if I wanted to do it.”
A year and a half later, West said she’s “found her calling” at Tesla.
“I didn’t know this (two years ago), but I now want to retire at Tesla,” said West, who plans to work — and educate — her way from a production associate to a technician to an engineer at the Gigafactory. “I had no clue I wanted to join manufacturing or engineering or anything like it. But, I now know what I want to do.”
And West is not alone. After receiving positive feedback from the initial group of 13 hires, the Manufacturing Development Program grew to more than 50 graduates from 15 different state high schools in 2018, said Chris Reilly, Tesla’s workforce development and education programs director.
“Based on the feedback from managers and supervisors, we were essentially asked, ‘How fast can you grow this program across this state?’” Reilly told the NNBV. “We continue to see this program being around 50 to 60 new team members per year.”
It’s one of a handful of programs Tesla has launched in an effort to build a sturdy pipeline of Nevada workers for its Gigafactory, which currently has over 7,000 employees.According to Tesla, as part of its agreement to locate the Gigafactory in Nevada, the company is committed to pumping $37.5 million over five years into K-12 education. It's unclear how much money the company is investing, however, in the Manufacturing Development Program, or other apprenticeship programs outlined later in this story.
Since breaking ground in 2014, Tesla has completed about 30 percent of its planned 5.8-million-square-foot factory. At former Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval’s tech summit in October, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said it could employ up to 20,000 workers at full build-out.
Backed by a need to groom a steady stream of skilled Nevada workers, the electric carmaker has also created the Gigafactory Training Gateway.
This program — created in partnership with the Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), TMCC and Western Nevada College (WNC) — allows Nevadans to take a customized 15-credit curriculum in advanced manufacturing.
Composed of online classes and hands-on labs, courses cover electrical and mechanical theory, robotics, and programmable logic controllers.
It’s a program built for people like Reno resident George Stewart. After working in real estate finance for six years, Stewart was itching to pivot into a different industry — one that aligned with his hobby and interest of building and racing customized drones. Lucky for Stewart, his wife worked on the recruiting team for Tesla.
“Gateway was really my only avenue forward,” Stewart told the NNBV.
Stewart joined Tesla as a process technician in June 2017 and enrolled in the Gateway program two months later. Though the curriculum is set up to take roughly 12-18 months, Stewart cruised through his coursework in nine, becoming the first Tesla employee to complete the program last spring.
“George Stewart was a rock star,” Reilly recalled. “Just seeing his passion for the program and for the coursework and going into TMCC’s Edison campus on his days off to learn more, it was really inspiring it pushed us to continue build on the program.”
To date, there are more than 120 active Tesla team members in the program, said Reilly, adding: “This spring will be that moment where we see large number of individuals fully complete it.”
One could say Stewart, much like West, also found his calling. Already, just two years removed from working in finance, he’s been promoted at Tesla, leading a team of about 30 technicians as an engineering supervisor.
“They give you everything you need to be successful here on the job directly,” he said. “Everything I learned in the lab (of my coursework), I could apply on the job immediately. It just made me hungry to learn more and get more involved and keep advancing because it was directly correlating to my impact on the job.
“It’s really a pathway to a career, not just a job.”
Meanwhile, for those not quite ready for a career, Tesla has also launched a Technician Trainee Program to give full-time engineering students the chance to work part-time at Gigafactory around their school schedules.
“We wanted to do that to enable more hands-on learning experiences for students in the community at that level,” Reilly said.
Starting with a pilot group of five students in spring of 2018, the program has since doubled, growing to 10 students in the proceeding semesters. This summer, Tesla will expand the program to engineering students at UNLV and Sacramento.
“With unemployment as low as it is, it’s important to build these programs to be able to have sustainable pipelines,” Reilly said. “As we reach a critical mass of employees here, these pipelines are becoming a larger percentage of total recruitment over time. So it was really important for us to start building these relationships early on in Gigafactory’s growth.
“And now we want to see these as annual traditions for the company.”