Taking Charge: Mark Schwager, left, Porter Harris, and Michael Patterson at Romeo Power in Vernon.

Taking Charge: Mark Schwager, left, Porter Harris, and Michael Patterson at Romeo Power in Vernon. Photo by Ringo Chiu.

Workers at Romeo Power’s new 113,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Vernon gather around workstations to test and assemble the startup’s next-generation battery packs for electric vehicles.

The company, which develops lithium-ion vehicle batteries, is part of a wave of U.S. manufacturing businesses whose use of sophisticated technology calls for more highly skilled workers.

Romeo, which launched in August, has staffed up with 105 employees and plans to add 200 more manufacturing jobs this year. Most of its equipment is expected to be in place in July, manned not by the traditional blue-collar workers often associated with manufacturing but by a highly skilled labor force with engineering degrees or technical training.

“Jobs don’t exist for simple manufacturing anymore,” said Mark Schwager, Romeo’s chief production officer. “That’s essentially a thing of the past, and that’s being eliminated by automation and competitiveness across the world.”

U.S. manufacturing is in transition, as 20th century assembly line work gives way to automation. The challenge – which was underscored by President Donald Trump’s rise – is that many of those workers with 20th century skills are still in the workforce.

Los Angeles County lost almost 262,000 manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2016, dropping to 353,100 from 615,000, according to studies by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. Between 2014 and 2016, 13,400 manufacturing jobs left the county.

A recent LAEDC report forecasts an additional 1,400 will be lost over the next two years. Yet the average unemployment rate in the county was 5.1 percent last year, the lowest it’s been since 2007.

Kimberly Ritter-Martinez, an economist at the organization, said many of those blue-collar manufacturing jobs might be replaced in coming years by growth in high-tech industries. There are jobs in those industries, but companies are having trouble finding skilled machinists to fill them.

Romeo is one of those businesses, hiring electrical, thermal, and firmware engineers to work on the company’s removable lithium-ion battery packs. LAEDC says the average annual manufacturing wage in the county is $52,000. While Schwager would not disclose the wages of the people assembling his products, he did say in an email that Romeo “pays a premium over area and industry averages to ensure that we effectively compensate our personnel for their skills and ability to deliver value.”

Charged conversation

Chief Executive Michael Patterson said the idea to make lithium-ion battery packs for electric vehicles came up in a conversation four years ago with co-founder Porter Harris in a café called Romeo in Greece. Harris, Romeo’s chief technology officer, formerly worked at Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, where he developed power packs for rockets, and also did a stint at electric car manufacturer Faraday Future as its chief battery architect.

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