For OEMs and parts makers, EV retooling isn’t just about plants — it means replacing lost jobs and upskilling their workforce
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Oct 28, 2022
Mehanaz Yakub

The transition to electric vehicles will cost jobs as well as create them, while requiring Canada’s auto labour force to acquire new skills — realities that governments and the private sector are now grappling with

The GM CAMI factory in Ingersoll, Ont. is where General Motors’ electric delivery van BrightDrop will be built. Upskilling workers to meet the needs of an EV-future is a priority for automakers in Canada. Photo: General Motors

The transition to electric vehicles will cost jobs as well as create them, while requiring Canada’s auto labour force to acquire new skills — realities that governments and the private sector are now grappling with

Four out of five global automakers currently building vehicles in Canada are committed to producing electric or hybrid vehicles in this country. And while the shift to EVs promises a lot of opportunities, it also carries with it a level of uncertainty when it comes to job security for many of the engineers, factory assembly workers and component parts manufacturers.

In just one example, Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, says that the retooling of General Motors’ plant in Ingersoll, Ont., to build BrightDrop electric delivery vans has resulted in the loss of jobs for approximately 700 Unifor members. The job losses were, in part, due to GM shifting production of the combustion vehicle GMC Terrain to Mexico when it was formerly made in Ingersoll, but others are due to a phasing out of traditional vehicle components that EVs don’t use.

“It’s a good case study into what we can expect as this starts happening in other assembly plants,” says Angelo DiCaro, director of research at Unifor in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada.

In general, EVs require fewer and different parts. This means that while some jobs can be retained or retrained during this transition, there are some component parts jobs that are simply non-transferable to an EV, says DiCaro.

An analysis by the research group Future of Canadian Automotive Labourforce estimates that almost 16,500 powertrain and transmission auto jobs — about one-fifth of the auto parts workforce in the country, says DiCaro — will be significantly impacted because of the shift to battery-electric vehicle manufacturing and the non-transferability of the parts.

“We’ve also done our own deep dive at our own membership [and] in our estimate… somewhere in the ballpark of 3,000 of Unifor’s 17,000 members [in the independent auto parts sector] are in high-risk workplaces — meaning that the stuff they build right now is not needed in an electric vehicle,” says DiCaro. “And so the question is raised about, well, what are they going to do? Where will they work?”

What can be done?

While the move to EVs is creating many vulnerabilities for auto parts workers, it’s not all bleak.

Strategic investments from the government and private sector in developing a domestic battery supply chain (examples likes LG Energy and Stellantis‘s battery plant, DongShin Motech‘s battery casing facility and Umicore‘s cathode active material and precursor cathode active material plant in Ontario) promises thousands of new jobs into which some of the displaced workers can move, says DiCaro.

But the much of the workforce will need to be retrained, and some jurisdictions are already taking action.

In Quebec, where there is also a robust auto parts and auto manufacturing industry, there is a strong push to pivot to EVs. To help connect the dots between the jobs that will be available in future in the sector and current job-seekers, Propulsion Québec, an industrial development cluster supporting the province’s electric and intelligent transportation sector, created a career and training fair called En Route in 2021. In addition to the annual event, there is also a year-round online jobs board where Quebec-based electric and smart transportation companies, including the likes of Nova Bus, Recyclage Lithion and Wabtec Corp., can show off their innovations and offer employment and training opportunities.

“We knew that the labour and developing the talent in our industry was our biggest issue..and we thought that it would be great if we could think of a project where we can support the industry in that regard,” says Simon Pillarella, director of the En Route project at Propulsion Québec, in an interview with Electric Autonomy.

Part of the reason why initiatives like En Route are important, says Pillarella, is because the EV sector is still very much a new industry.

“I think there’s a lot of appeal for an industry that has an impact on global warming like us, but also an industry that is super high-tech. But [people] really have to dig deeper to understand concretely what can I do? What are the companies? And what are my job prospects in this?,” says Pillarella.

Recently, Unifor also published a report called Navigating the Road Ahead – Rebuilding Canada’s Powerhouse Auto Sector, which provides several recommendations on how the industry can prepare to address the shift in the workforce.

The three key recommendations DiCaro highlights are:

  • Developing a comprehensive mapping of the current auto supply base across the country for governments to be aware of where vulnerabilities in the job market lie and how to assist;
  • Creating a tailored labour market adjustment program for auto workers to help them in moving into new jobs and with income security; and
  • Building inventories of the skills that are needed from assembly to battery production and to all the other component parts in the EV space.

“If the goal is that we’re going to build out a Canadian supply chain for all these different pieces of the new supply chain, we should be able to identify what skills are going to be in high demand and get the workforce proactively trying to get the skills upgrading done so that we’re job-ready when these investments come in,” says DiCaro.

Upskilling workers

In many cases, OEMs are developing their own programming and working in conjunction with community colleges to help upskill current and future employees.

For example, last year GM launched a training program through the GM Automotive Manufacturing Electric College (AMEC) to help prepare its current employees for the EV push.

Participants are taught how to carry out electrical procedures including: schematics, diagnostics and vehicle wiring harness construction. The program provides a full paid salary during the training period (which lasts between six to 12 months) at GM’s Global Technical Center in Warren, Mich.

“The goal is to equip participants with the technical skills needed to perform electrical-based job duties — all before they reach the floor of a manufacturing site,” reads GM’s website.

But what is missing in Canada, says Unifor, is a comprehensive national strategy where the government has a role in enabling workers to gain new skills.

“There’s got to be an integration with how training will marry with income security programs so that workers [are not] forking out pocket money to go and get themselves trained. Or if they’re laid off, they’re going to need income supports to do that [training], and so, all of the different stakeholders are going to have to play a role.”

For its part, Propulsion Québec is planning a new research effort to better determine what the province’s needs are in terms of skills and training in the sector.

“We’re going to launch — we cross our fingers — a deep dive diagnosis early next year to really understand the competency requirements and labour requirements at the industry level in terms of transport electrification,” says Pillarella.

“We want to go into more details about what the industry is going to need, so we can get a better sense of what types of training programs we can develop for the industry to really support the upskilling and retraining of staff.”

Growing opportunities in a growing industry

As the move to EVs continues, DiCaro says the industry and workers need to be proactive about the oncoming shift.

“Right now is a very critical moment for us to make sure that we are doubling into [all] aspects of the supply chain,” says DiCaro.

“It’s great that we’ve got the assembly contracts and we will likely have some of the supplier contracts…but some of the other critical components like the motors and the axles and the power systems — we need those here. We need those in Canada.”

It’s a sentiment shared by the various levels of government as well. Ontario’s minister of job creation, Vic Fedeli, recently shared with Electric Autonomy that the province is in conversation with international companies from the entire EV supply chain, to make the case for why they should set up factories in Canada.

At the federal level, Innovation, Science and Economic Development minister, François-Philippe Champagne tells Electric Autonomy that he is in talks with auto partners from virtually every continent and wants to pad out the skeleton of the EV battery supply chain in Canada with supporting parts manufacturers.

“There’s growth on the horizon as opposed to constantly feeling like we’re just hanging on by our fingernails in a sector that’s declining,” says DiCaro.

“I think not only is it giving excitement to auto workers currently to want to be part of this new transition, but workers who may have historically not even thought of the auto industry as a place that they want to work.”

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