[Reporter's Notebook] Korea's universities urged to set up battery-tech program

[Reporter's Notebook] Korea's universities urged to set up battery-tech program

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By Kim Bo-eun

With semiconductors, batteries are considered as a core technology for Korea in terms of the country’s national security and economic growth, as the United States and China invest more to develop next-generation batteries for electric vehicles (EVs).

In order to take the upper hand amid this trend, securing talent is the most pressing task for Korea’s battery manufacturers and also a highly challenging one.

This is due to the dire lack of individuals that have studied battery-related technology. The absence of undergraduate-level battery-tech programs at universities has led battery companies to hire employees that have experience with rival firms or rely on the small number of individuals with master’s or doctoral degrees in the field.

Most automotive engineering departments at the undergraduate level are still focused on conventional vehicles with internal combustion engines, only offering a few courses on EVs.

This national shortage of trained individuals in the field even resulted in a major dispute between two major battery makers, as a late market entrant poached employees of a rival firm to secure key technology. While the dispute was settled, it cost the companies years of time and effort, as well as money.

LG Energy Solution (LGES) recently unveiled plans to establish the world’s first institute of battery technology at its Ochang plant, to deal with the dire lack of experts in the sector.

Having more skilled engineers is an urgent matter, given the rapid growth of the EV battery market. The global market for EV batteries is set to expand by more than 22 times last year’s 140 gigawatt-hours to 3,000 gigawatt-hours in 2030.

Industry insiders say talent is the most important factor in maintaining competitiveness to capture market opportunities, and this is why state-backed efforts to foster experts is key.

They point out that for the government to develop the battery sector as a key industry, it needs to provide support for battery departments at universities as it did for semiconductor departments.

The government has backed the establishment of semiconductor departments at leading universities here, such as Yonsei and Korea, in collaboration with local chipmakers Samsung Electronics and SK hynix, as a means to foster personnel in the field. Graduates of the departments are provided full scholarships and ensured positions at the companies.

In June, the government unveiled a long-term plan to strengthen the battery industry as a strategic sector. Part of the plan covered the fostering of battery experts, but the scheme lacked specifics on how this would be done. The government stated the education ministry and universities needed to reach a consensus to be able to set up battery departments at the schools. Existing faculty members are opposed to the plan given they risk losing their positions.

Korea’s three battery makers LGES, Samsung SDI and SK Innovation currently rank in the top six global battery firms. However, they cannot afford to remain complacent given heated competition in the industry amid the growth of Chinese competitors.

For now, Korea faces the task of bolstering its battery industry’s human resources through the setting up of key departments in the nation’s universities if the country’s competitive edge in the field of EV battery technology is to be maintained.

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