Women making up more than half of GM Oshawa’s workforce signals major culture shift

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Published January 25, 2022 at 9:15 am

Jacqueline Thomson, General Assembly Area Manager

When General Motors announced the Oshawa assembly plant was going to re-open after being shuttered for nearly two years and 1,800 employees were going to be needed to staff it, a culture change was inevitable.

It’s unlikely anyone knew how dramatic that change would be, but more than half of the plant’s employees are now woman, something very different from the overwhelmingly male-dominated workforce of the past.

Kristy Newbold works in human relations and recruitment and said the company had a “keen interest” from the start in changing the culture on the plant floor.

“Our plant leadership had a vision of creating 50/50 gender parity and this aligned with our company’s vision of becoming the most inclusive company in the world,” the 13-year veteran explained. “The majority of our employees are new to manufacturing so we had a unique opportunity to inspire and create change in the workforce.”

In 2019 women made up between 15-20 per cent of the workforce.

Heather MacLeod is one of those new employees and said she could see the evidence of the culture change the first day on the job. “It really creates a great working environment,” she said.

MacLeod spent the past 15 years with the RCMP but when COVID hit she was transferred to a desk job and “that just wasn’t for me.”

“I’m an active person and I like to do something that gets me going and active all day,” she said. “In my previous career it was a male-dominated industry and coming to auto workers you’d also think that.”

“But my team actually has more women than men.”

GM announced the $1.3-billion retooling of the Oshawa Assembly Plant in the fall of 2020 and after part of a year making face masks during the early months of the pandemic, resumed automotive production November 9, 2021, several months ahead of schedule.

During the recruitment process, the company received more than 13,000 applications, with positions starting at $23.67 per hour.

Muriel Matthews, Paint Team Leader

Muriel Matthews, a stay-at-home mom whose last job was in a deli, was another of the new hires with zero experience in manufacturing. Now she’s a Team Lead on the sealer line.

“It’s wonderful to see all the different faces and attitudes that come with it,” she said, adding getting weekends off to spend with her daughter has made a huge difference in her family life. “And the opportunity to grow is even more exponential than probably anywhere else.”

Another of the fresh faces is Honey Panchal, a chassis operator who is new to Oshawa but quite familiar with General Motors.

Panchal, an engineer by trade, worked at GM in India from 2012-2017 before immigrating to Canada. “It was my dream when I came here to work at GM again,” she said. “I love to work with such a diverse and inclusive team.”

Jacqueline Thomson, 45, is a 21-year veteran and the first female general-assembly-area manager in the history of General Motors Canada. One of 16 people in the automotive industry tapped as ‘Canadians to watch’ in 2021 by Automotive News Canada, Thomson’s job has been to help prepare Oshawa Assembly for the return of vehicle production after a two-year hiatus.

“I know the industry has transformed, and we’ve gone through different things in lieu of that, but to me there’s such a pride within the Oshawa team. I’m ecstatic to be back and a part of it. It’s like a rebirth.”

As area manager, Thomson is responsible for 800 employees. “It’s a huge responsibility, not just for being female but to ensure I’m building a culture where people feel included.”

Newbold said the early returns are showing the recruitment team they made the right call in diversifying the workforce.

“When we create a culture where we value our unique and individual differences we create an environment where employees are engaged, they provide their innovative ideas and ultimately, we become a company (that is) the benchmark of success.”

Whether GM Canada’s diversity project in Oshawa becomes the norm in other auto manufacturing facilities or even trickles back to the company’s global headquarters in Detroit is something people in the industry will be watching for.

It’s certainly working for Newbold. “The energy and the culture of the Oshawa Assembly Plant is electric. I’m excited to be a part of it.”

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