As Elon Musk attempts to manage Twitter after mass layoffs in November, his flagship company Tesla is also facing staffing problems globally, with vacancies doubling since mid-June, coupled with exits at its newest gigafactory in Germany.
When the gigafactory in Berlin opened in March, it had a target to produce 5,000 vehicles a week by the end of this year. But it is far from reaching its goals after facing major recruitment problems—the company has so far managed to hire just 7,000 people out of a planned 12,000. This lack of personnel is coupled with missed ambitious production targets; in 2022 Musk told German media he expected to build half a million Teslas in Berlin in 2022.
The company is also losing experienced personnel, according to former and current employees at the gigafactory. They say that current staffers are leaving jobs due to low and unequal pay and inexperienced management in the highly competitive German manufacturing sector. Tesla did not respond to WIRED’s requests for comment.
One current employee, who requested anonymity out of fear of losing their job, describes the Berlin gigafactory as “total chaos.” “Some people are off sick longer than they’ve actually worked. There are people who I haven’t seen working for three weeks in six months. Many people are signed off sick because the motivation isn’t there,” they say, blaming poor working conditions. The exits involve temporary staff and permanent employees who have been there for over a year, hired before the gigafactory opened, they claim.
Worldwide, Tesla reached a record number of vacancies for the year in November, listing almost 7,500 jobs. This is double the postings in mid-June, according to data from its own website. Though most of these vacancies were in the US, Germany was in second place, with 386 vacancies advertised at the Berlin plant on November 11, including one for a “high-volume recruiter.”
Local labor specialists say it is unlikely Tesla will be able to find more qualified workers to fill the gap, because it is seen as an unattractive employer in the heavily unionized German auto sector, and it competes with rival carmaker Volkswagen for skilled workers in the Berlin area. The Job Centre in nearby Frankfurt (Oder) said on October 4 that Tesla had hired 1,000 previously unemployed workers already, calling it “the biggest recruitment project since reunification,” and according to some reports, Tesla is already the largest private employer in Brandenburg.
According to the German metalworkers union IG Metall, Tesla is paying 20 percent less than similar businesses based on staff contracts and job descriptions. IG Metall representative Birgit Dietze wrote in a press release in June, “We know from active IG Metall members that recruitment is not happening at the planned speed.”
Holger Bonin, research director at the Institute of Labor Economics, based in Bonn, said that this was a problem with the specialist job market in the country generally, not helped by the fact that many qualified workers in the Berlin region can easily commute to Volkswagen’s main plant in Wolfsburg instead.
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“Fundamentally, the German labor market has record employment despite coronavirus and inflation. There is a shortage of qualified workers everywhere,” Bonin says. “Everyone who could be employed is already employed. That makes it very difficult to fill jobs.”
Around 10 percent of the gigafactory’s workers are foreign, mostly from neighboring Poland. Tesla had hoped to attract more Polish workers by advertising Polish-speaking hiring managers at the gigafactory, which is just 60 miles from the border. But Polish media reports that these hopes have been dashed by Tesla’s German language requirement.
Staffing is just the latest setback for Tesla’s Berlin gigafactory, which has already faced a legion of difficulties. Before it opened, it faced environmental protests and court orders over its construction harming endangered lizards, and causing deforestation as well as water contamination.
In September, the Tesla factory's fire brigade was unable to put out a large cardboard fire itself and called in help from local firefighters. It then emerged that Tesla had no working fire alarms.
In the last year, Tesla dropped from being German engineering graduates’ second preferred employer (behind Google) to sixth. It is now behind German car manufacturers like Porsche, with some respondents pointing to Elon Musk’s comments about firing employees who wanted to work from home.
Tesla’s Berlin gigafactory reached a production benchmark of 2,000 Model Y cars a week at the end of October. This means that gigafactory workers have doubled their output since June. But even if they continue to increase production at that rate, they will still be far off their goal of 5,000 a week by the end of the year. This is much lower than the output from the company’s other gigafactories: Tesla data tracker Troy Teslike points out that Giga Shanghai reached 20,000 units in exactly 100 days, followed by Giga Texas in 151 days, and Giga Berlin in 187 days.
One of the reasons for this production deficit is the delay of the planned full third-shift system to keep the factory running 24 hours a day, a source familiar with the matter says. This shift was supposed to be implemented in September 2022, but it has reportedly been pushed back. This third shift will require production workers to change their shift patterns every day, across a seven-working-day period. A number of current staff at Tesla Grünheide were unhappy about this, complaining that these working conditions were not in their contract and saying that it exacerbated preexisting staffing problems, the current employee says. They blamed numbers-driven recruitment targets. “People in HR want to hit their targets for recruitment, so they will say anything to get people in, but not pay attention to keeping these workers,” they say.
One former employee, who left Tesla in September alongside other staff members after working there for over a year, describes sudden, unannounced changes in working conditions. The former employee, who requested anonymity to speak openly, had been recruited for a mid-level position via LinkedIn, and had signed a contract to move hundreds of miles to Berlin from a smaller German city.
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Just before they started, the former employee says they received an updated contract with a new job title. The initial job description had specified that staff must be “willing to work weekends and nights determined by project,” which they had understood to mean occasional nights and weekends in special circumstances.
But without any warning, they were given a new job description that required them to work early, night, and weekend shifts. “After two months they changed my shift to a 24/7 three-shift system. I have a young son, and for us it was hard to manage,” the former employee says, adding that they had no family support available, because they had moved away from family for the job. When they complained about this, “there was a lack of empathy” from Tesla, and the employee claims they reported inflexibility in changing shift plans, even when the factory was not producing cars due to machines not functioning, with significantly reduced tasks.
Tesla’s attempt to improve recruitment and retention by increasing pay for new staff also backfired, as longer-term employees were being paid less than employees who had just arrived doing the same jobs with similar qualifications. This is not usually possible in the heavily unionized auto sector in Germany, as salaries are usually negotiated according to union rates. This caused conflict with the IG Metall union, negative press, and accusations from the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations of “threatening Germany’s social partnership model” of cooperation between businesses and unions. Tesla received threats of legal action from IG Metall, causing it to eventually raise overall pay by 6 percent, though the union says inequalities remain.