Rising joblessness increases candidate pool for Nikola

Nikola trucks

As unemployment rises because of the coronavirus pandemic, electric and fuel cell truck maker Nikola Motor is in the enviable position of attracting top talent for scores of pre-production job openings.

The interest in working for the startup is so great that business-to-business site LinkedIn briefly shut down CEO Trevor Milton’s account because he was getting so many page views. 

Nikola expects to hire about 100 engineers and designers as it gets closer to production of the Class 8 battery-electric Tre model for initial sale in Europe. The current staff is about 300 with dozens more workers dedicated to the trucks from suppliers.

“We are pretty much able to get who we go after,” Nikola President Mark Russell told FreightWaves. “The world looks really uncertain for a lot of people right now.”

Mark Russell, president of Nikola Corp. (Image: Nikola)

The 5.2 million first-time jobless claims reported by the U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday brought the four-week total to 22 million, based on state unemployment insurance claims.

Startup advantage

With a business model focused on zero-emission commercial and recreational vehicles supported by a hydrogen fueling infrastructure, Nikola is attracting hundreds of millions in new investment as it awaits approval to go public.

“For any company that has the capital to spend on hiring more staff right now, it’s certainly an opportunity because there are people becoming available,” said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Navigant Research.

“It’s a rough time for most companies and in Nikola’s case since they don’t have manufacturing operations up and running yet, they may have less cash burn than some of their competitors,” Abuelsamid told FreightWaves.

The few candidates turning down Nikola opportunities are unable to relocate or some other extraordinary circumstance, Russell said.

Minimal disruption

Nikola is building an assembly plant near Phoenix, Arizona, where the Tre will be assembled from kits of parts. That will be followed by production of the hydrogen-powered fuel cell Nikola Two day cab in 2023. 

Electric pickup startup Rivian, which is remodeling a former Mitsubishi car plant in Normal, Illinois, has laid off most of its 300 workers and delayed production of its R1T electric pickup until 2021.

Modifications are minimal to the Iveco truck plant in Ulm, Germany which builds the S-Way truck on which Nikola will base its products. Five to 25 Tre preproduction trucks are planned this year, Russell said.

“We’re not spending a ton of money there,” he said. “It’s a facility that’s already producing trucks. Our projections are to be mass producing starting next year. We don’t think we’re going to lose any time there unless things change from the trend they are on.”

Germany will begin slowly restarting its economy on Sunday, April 19. The country has confirmed more than 130,000 coronavirus infections and 3,500 deaths, lower figures than other European countries.

“The other work that is delayed for us is the production prototype,” Russell said. “The parts that are coming from suppliers are delayed because the technicians and the people working on them have had to stay home. At this point, we’ve lost a month.”

Most of Nikola’s work continues in the virtual world.

“We’re working on digital mockups,” Russell said. “Thankfully, we also had our hardware-in-the-loop set up for software testing before the problems hit, so that we’re continuing at the same pace. We were already working virtually before the quarantine.”

Horrific memories

Russell joined Nikola in 2019 after a career at metals manufacturer Worthington Industries (NYSE: WOR), where he was president and chief operating officer from 2012-2018. He remembers the dread of the 2008-09 Great Recession when he was president of WOR subsidiary Worthington Steel.

“At one point, we were off more than 50%. And that was the worst downturn that anybody I knew in the automotive industry, had ever seen,” he said. “What you’re looking at right now is some [manufacturers] going into their second month on zero. That’s even worse than in 2008-09, which was the worst that anybody could remember at the time.”

Russell added, “Nikola is affected by [coronavirus] almost the least you could imagine based on the fact that our work at this point is still mostly virtual.”