GM is taking a new approach to workforce diversity as Oshawa, Ont. production resumes

The huge gray shell of GM’s Oshawa assembly plant looks like it did when the company shut down production on a freezing day in December 2019, but much of what’s there has inside is surprisingly new.

There’s a new product – since the November restart, the factory has been making huge (and hugely profitable) Chevy Silverado pickups – fancy new robots to spin them around the factory, and miles of new conveyor lines to carry them out. But perhaps the biggest change is a workforce that’s not just largely new to the plant, but to manufacturing as a whole after the automaker made a concerted effort to hire women for about half of the 1,200 line positions.

“I didn’t even know how to use a hammer until I came here,” said Adriana Wilkinson, who is now production team leader in the body shop.

Like many new hires, Wilkinson’s previous job – she ran an escape room – was disrupted by the pandemic, so she said she jumped at the “life-changing opportunity” for her and her family when GM started hiring last year, and now says she’s here for life.

“I never thought I would work with vehicles, never knew how to use a tool and totally out of my comfort zone, but I jumped into it and love it.”

Others online include the likes of Heather MacLeod, who is embarking on a new career after retiring from the RCMP; Honey Panchal, a control systems engineer who moved to Canada from India last year; and Crystal Cooper, who moved from customer service at GM to working as a group leader on the final assembly line because she wanted to get out of her element.

“Coming into the world of manufacturing was completely different, but it was tough, and I really wanted to be part of something bigger,” Cooper said.

Gender parity on the production line is a significant shift for an industry where, in Canada, women make up only about 23% of auto assembly jobs, according to the Future of the Workforce Initiative. Canadian automotive workforce.

GM Canada President Scott Bell said diversity had been a priority for some time at the company, led by Mary Barra and featuring an equal board, but said it was the factory restart that had pushed for gender balance. .

“We just recognized the fact that we have a unique opportunity, and put the effort into it.”

To encourage more women to apply for the job, GM highlighted stories of women who had previously worked there as part of its campaign, and made sure to do targeted advertising on social media. a total of applications from across Canada and abroad for approximately 1,800 positions, including skilled workers.

The opportunity to hire a whole new workforce, however, came at the expense of many early retirements, layoffs and disruption for those who thought production would never return.

“I’m not thrilled that GM closed our plant,” said Rebecca Keetch, who is back at the plant after choosing to stand by when production was suspended.

She said she was glad production was back, but the rapid closure and reopening was disrespectful to workers and the community, and resulted in the loss of higher-paying management positions. Third-party supplier workers have also been affected without the same supports as GM workers.

Keetch is active in a group pushing for electric vehicle production in Oshawa and has been disappointed the plant hasn’t secured new commitments from GM on that front.

“I just don’t see a sense of long-term security unless they decide to make Oshawa part of their autonomous, electric, and connected vision of the future. »

Bell of GM Canada said the 2019 plant closure was unfortunate, but part of a larger restructuring. With better-than-expected pickup demand, GM spent $1.3 billion on Oshawa as part of its commitment to the plant, he said, which will help fund the company’s transition to the ‘electric.

“It’s a substantial investment. The trucks are going to be around for a long time, so we feel good about that. From an electric vehicle perspective, you know, we have to fund that activity. »

Demand for pickup trucks has increased during the pandemic as factories work overtime to produce them, said Sam Fiorani, head of global vehicle forecasting at AutoForecast Solutions LLC.

He said that with GM having already announced the closure of Oshawa twice, first in 2008 and then in 2018, it’s risky to bet on the plant’s future, but he doesn’t see the demand either. pickups are declining, and Oshawa is the only GM plant that can produce both light and heavy models.

“This is the most promising outlook for any plant in Canada, any Detroit Three plant in Canada, for a longer term future.

Many in the factory hope that will be the case.

“I plan to be here for the next 30 years,” said Stephanie Waudby, 38, a production crew chief on the finishing line.

Waudby had her own cleaning business before the pandemic slowed things down and she got into manufacturing for the first time. She was no stranger to auto manufacturing, as she is now a third-generation GM employee at the plant.

She said she is proud to carry on the family legacy and everyone is excited to build trucks again in Oshawa.

“It was really heartbreaking for a lot of people when the factory had to close, so just being able to bring that back to this area is amazing.”

Michael A. Bynum