Auto execs, higher education re-imagining how to prepare workforce for one of the biggest industry shifts in a century

Article content

This is part six of The Logic’s in-depth series exploring how Canada is faring in the global competition for tech talent, as economies reopen and companies and governments jockey for advantage in a remote-work world.

Advertisement 2

Article content


Car models being imagined now look nothing like the ones in our driveways today — and that means Canada’s automakers and suppliers find themselves posting more jobs requiring skills that aren’t yet widely taught on the job. Many companies are taking the matter into their own hands, teaming up with colleges, universities or online platforms to recruit and retrain a bespoke workforce for one of the biggest industry shifts in a century.

“That war for talent is raging across Canada,” said Lauren Tedesco, vice-president of learning and development at the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association (APMA), who sees a transition point in the industry.

While it will be more than 13 years before Canada will require all new car and light-duty-truck sales to be zero emissions, “that design and that engineering, and that production really needs to start now,” she said.

Advertisement 3

Article content

A report from Clean Energy Canada released in June says jobs in electric-vehicle technology will grow 39 per cent per year, resulting in a 26-fold employment increase by 2030. It will come at a time when Canada is already short of skilled tradespeople, and some are worried about how the country will meet demands for service technicians who can repair new styles of drive trains, braking systems and high-voltage electrification systems. Meanwhile, Canadian engineers are competing with experts around the world for investments in battery chemistry and autonomous-driving innovation.

That war for talent is raging across Canada

Lauren Tedesco, Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association

Justin Gammage, former chief scientist for General Motors Canada, is a senior executive adviser of strategic research priorities and industry collaborations at Ontario Tech University, one of the many educators working overtime to help companies fill jobs that look nothing like those of the past. He said that after about 100 years of the same four- or five-year vehicle product cycle, software updates now require auto companies to be ready to send out updates every year.

Advertisement 4

Article content

He works with a company called QA Consultants to train workers on automotive software testing — some gearheads, who go on to work on the systems that drive the cars, and some software developers, who are interested in building infotainment systems.

Software testing isn’t the only emerging change coming for the auto industry. Invest WindsorEssex highlighted in a May report that St. Clair College was expanding its programs to focus on autonomous-vehicle security. To prepare Canadian graduates with general, non-automotive cyber skills, the report suggests following the lead of Israel, where basic encryption is taught in Grade 10. Ontario’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network cites advanced materials, battery knowledge, data analytics and the use of workplace-collaboration tools as just a few of the “emerging” skills needed in the auto sector.

Advertisement 5

Article content

A resurgence in automotive jobs from recent EV-production deals could be a welcome relief after a shift cut at a Stellantis plant in Windsor that could impact 1,800 jobs, as well as an ongoing semiconductor shortage that has left others out of work.

The APMA has designed its new digital-learning platform with the factory floor in mind. The courses, which are launching in January after two years of development, are mobile-friendly and short “microcredentials” that workers can do even if they don’t have regular access to a desk and computer.

Some in-demand auto skills, however, can’t be learned only on the job and require university credentials — or worse, credentials that are hard to get in Canada. For QA Consultants, one problem is that Canadian universities don’t treat software testing as a scientific discipline the way it is taught in some European schools, said chief operating officer Peter Watkins. To solve that problem, they created the partnership with Ontario Tech as well as an international collaboration between universities, research institutes, companies and technology suppliers in Sweden, Germany, Turkey, Portugal and Canada.

Advertisement 6

Article content

“That’s the best part of what we do. We don’t just look inward, in Canada, to see who’s the best of the best. We actually look and work with the best in the world to make sure that we, and our partnership between QA consultants and Ontario Tech, remains globally leading,” said Gammage.

Invest WindsorEssex said in a separate report this year that the region may need to consider recruiting international students for new jobs in the electric-vehicle-battery supply chain. While many workers in the sector are already qualified or would require minimal retraining for EV jobs, the organization announced an accelerator in May for upskilling automobility entrepreneurs.

“Windsor-Essex region experienced a decline in population of individuals with a university education. This could be an issue for the region as many of the jobs identified as necessary for the EV value chain require a university education,” says the report, which suggests institutions look to Michigan’s Wayne State University.

Advertisement 7

Article content

The Detroit-based university was the first to launch an EV engineering curriculum in 2010. Its accreditation programs, and connections to both government and manufacturers, have advanced research on batteries and simulations, the report says. It also could be an opportunity to develop Canadian automotive talent if an institution here could forge a partnership, since Wayne State already partners with the University of Windsor on programs in nursing, pharmacy and law.

A report from Clean Energy Canada released in June says jobs in electric-vehicle technology will grow 39 per cent per year, resulting in a 26-fold employment increase by 2030.
A report from Clean Energy Canada released in June says jobs in electric-vehicle technology will grow 39 per cent per year, resulting in a 26-fold employment increase by 2030. Photo by Toby Melville/Reuters files

In China, Tsinghua University works with both Toyota and young German engineers at Technische Universität München. The report notes that Tesla has invited Chinese kindergarten students to learn about EVs and ease skepticism about its products, a tactic that could be twinned here at events like Windsor-Essex’s annual Manufacturing Day.

Advertisement 8

Article content

Steve Elder, instructor and program designer of an EV diploma at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, has seen transmissions go from three-speed up to 10-speed, and with each upgrade, it means smaller mechanic shops need more expensive equipment. Demand is growing for his program — but it’s likely not something that someone can learn as a hobbyist or DIY car enthusiast, he said.

“What I really care about is: do they understand electricity?” he said.

It’s not unusual for companies to look to universities for cutting-edge research, like Dalhousie University’s battery lab or the University of Waterloo’s partnership with BlackBerry. But the changes happening in the industry now go beyond R&D — vehicles are being changed to the very core, and so too are the demands on autoworkers.

Advertisement 9

Article content

“Some of the major complaints of new automobile owners are not really about the cars themselves, it’s about things like, ‘My Bluetooth won’t pair with my iPhone,’” said Elder.

“Nine out of 10 complaints with automatic transmission have nothing to do with the mechanics of the transmission. It has to do with the control, so it’s on the software side. I think going forward here, we need people who understand more clearly how the software updating that you’re doing to the computer systems is affecting the way the vehicle runs.”

Advertisement 10

Article content

To keep Canada competitive, APMA’s Tedesco said the auto supply chain needs to change the way it recruits the next generation of talent.

“We need to have a shift in the way people view the auto sector, because they might see footage on the news of a production line or think about maybe the role that their parents had or their grandparents had,” she said.

“There’s this misconception about it being really difficult labour — dirty, greasy — and these dark workplaces…. The roles have really shifted from, maybe a lot of that manual or physical labour on the floor, moving into technology and robotics and data and AI.”

Still, Gammage said he’s confident that Canada’s auto talent can remain competitive with the likes of Silicon Valley. “Canada punches way above its weight,” he said.

The Logic


 For more stories about the future of work, sign up for the FP Work newsletter.




Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively but civil forum for discussion and encourage all readers to share their views on our articles. Comments may take up to an hour for moderation before appearing on the site. We ask you to keep your comments relevant and respectful. We have enabled email notifications—you will now receive an email if you receive a reply to your comment, there is an update to a comment thread you follow or if a user you follow comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.