GM takes new approach to worker diversity as Oshawa production returns


Published March 6, 2022 at 1:49 pm

The hulking grey shell of GM’s Oshawa assembly plant looks just like it did when the company shut down production on a frigid December day in 2019, but much of what’s inside is strikingly new.

There’s a new product — as of the November restart, the plant makes huge (and hugely profitable) Chevy Silverado pickup trucks — fancy new robots to swing them about the plant, and kilometres of new conveyor lines to usher them through to completion. But maybe the biggest change is a workforce that is not only largely new to the plant, but to the manufacturing sector at large 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 a production team leader in the body shop.

Like many of the 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’d be working with vehicles, never knew how to use a tool, and totally out of my comfort zone, but I jumped right in and I love it.”

Others on the line include people like Heather MacLeod, who is starting a new career after retiring from the RCMP; Honey Panchal, a controls system engineer who moved to Canada from India last year; and Crystal Cooper, who moved from customer care 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 manufacturing world was completely different, but it was challenging, and I really wanted to be a part of something bigger,” said Cooper.

The gender parity on the production line is a big shift for an industry where in Canada, women make up only about 23 per cent of auto assembly jobs, according to the Future of Canadian Automotive Labourforce Initiative.

GM Canada president Scott Bell said diversity has been a priority for some time at the company, which is led by Mary Barra and has a gender-balanced board, but he said it was the restart of the plant that led to the push for gender balance.

“We just recognized the fact that we’ve got a unique opportunity, and let’s put the effort in.”

To encourage more women to apply to the job, GM highlighted stories of women who had already worked there as part of its campaign, as well as made sure to do targeted social media advertising, They hardly had to worry though, with some 13,000 people in total applying from across Canada as well as internationally for about 1,800 positions including skilled workers.

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

“I am not thrilled that GM closed our plant,” said Rebecca Keetch, who is back working at the plant after choosing to stay on standby when production was suspended.

She said she’s excited that production is back, but that the rapid closure and reopening was disrespectful to workers and the community, and led to the loss of higher-paying senior positions. Workers at third-party suppliers were also hit without getting the same supports as GM workers.

Keetch is active in a group pushing for electric vehicle production in Oshawa, and was disappointed that the plant didn’t get 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, connected vision of the future.”

GM Canada’s Bell said the 2019 plantclosure was unfortunate, but that it was part of a wider restructuring. With better-than-expected demand for pickup trucks, GM has spent $1.3 billion on Oshawa as part of its commitment to the plant, he said, that will help fund the company’s transition to electric.

“It’s a substantial investment. Trucks are going to be around for a long time, so we feel good about that. From an EV perspective, you know, we’ve got to fund that business.”

Demand for pickups has increased during the pandemic, with plants working overtime to produce them, said Sam Fiorani, head of global vehicle forecasting at AutoForecast Solutions LLC.

He said that with GM already twice announcing the closure of Oshawa, first in 2008 and then in 2018, it’s risky to bet on the plant’s future, but he also doesn’t see pickup truck demand waning, and Oshawa is the only GM plant that can produce both light and heavy-duty models.

“This is the most hopeful outlook for any plant in Canada, any Detroit Three plants in Canada, for a longer-term future.”

Many in the plant are hoping that’s the case.

“I plan to be here for the next 30 years,” said Stephanie Waudby, 38, a production team leader on the trim line.

Waudby had her own cleaning business before the pandemic slowed things down and she jumped into manufacturing for the first time. She wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the auto manufacturing though, asshe isa now third-generation GM worker at the plant.

She said she’s proud to carry on the family legacy, and that everyone’s excited about building trucks again in Oshawa.

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

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 6, 2022.

Ian Bickis, The Canadian Press

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