December 4, 2023
Ontario’s zero-emissions vehicle and battery manufacturing sector is growing fast, and we need to ensure Ontario has the skilled workforce needed to fill open roles. In the coming days, the Smart Prosperity Institute (SPI), with support from Future Skills Centre, will be releasing three reports on the Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) and battery manufacturing sector’s labour and skills challenges. In these reports we explore workforce and skills needs as well as the barriers workers face to filling roles. We also outline a series of recommendations to help employers and workers adapt to a changing automotive sector. In advance of this release, this blog outlines some of our key findings, which we detail in more depth in our upcoming release.
In Ontario’s automotive manufacturing sector, the shift in technology and components used in manufacturing ZEVs will drive the changes in skill sets the industry needs. There are obvious changes – such as the replacement of an engine with an electric battery – but there are also a host of others. For example, ZEVs require the use of lighter and advanced high-strength steel to offset the increased weight of the battery pack. Additionally, when compared to ICEVs, ZEVs are made with less plastics, have double the number of semiconductors in each vehicle, and three times as much copper per vehicle. These changes in the end-use technology will change what suppliers need to manufacture and prioritize for Canada’s automotive sector, and each of these small shifts has impacts on upstream sectors and the workers in those sectors. For example, the change in the kinds of steel that need to be manufactured for ZEVs will impact the skills needed by steel and iron workers. These shifts show that the true impacts of changes the skilled workforce will experience as a result of ZEVs go beyond focusing on the engine, and more workers will be impacted than simply those in automotive assembly roles.
Even though the impacted workforce will cross many sectors through the supply chain, our analysis shows that most workers in these sectors already have the majority of the skills needed to adapt to these shifts. However, there are still some targeted gaps in skills needs. Many are specific technical skills around battery management, health and safety-related changes, or greater familiarity in working with robotics and automated solutions, needed primarily to help sectors adapt to changes and work with new processes. Yet these gaps can mostly be plugged through upskilling. Upskilling is a process through which training is done in (usually) short-term, targeted forms that build on an existing knowledge base and skill set. This is in comparison to having workers learn entirely new skill sets and train for completely different jobs (reskilling). This is largely because many of the most fundamental skills needed to work across the sector remain the same. These include social and emotional skills like problem solving, critical thinking, monitoring, and communication. Many foundational skills needed for the future are already possessed by the workforce in the sector, meaning future skills development work should not start from scratch.
The biggest workforce-related challenge facing the automotive sector is not about the skills the workforce has, but the workforce itself. Ontario’s auto sector has a severe shortage of skilled workers that could slow down its ability to fill open roles at new facilities. There are multiple reasons for this shortage of skilled talent, with one being an aging workforce. In 2016, 18% and 21% of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturing and Motor Vehicle Parts Manufacturing subsectors’ respective workforces were aged 55 and older. Manufacturing stakeholders in the London, ON area shared that in a recent survey of local manufacturers, close to two-thirds (66%) of the area’s manufacturing workforce was within five years of retirement. In our own survey conducted for this work, almost two-thirds (62.5%) of survey respondents identified ‘an aging/retiring workforce’ as a reason why they expected the ZEV manufacturing sector to have skills and labour shortages.
Another challenge relates to recruiting workers who are willing and able to work, but who may not fit the traditional “automotive worker” demographic, into the sector. Many of the challenges faced by these workers are not unique to the automotive sector but impact the industry nevertheless. One prominent example is newcomers with foreign skilled trades experience and qualifications. These individuals, depending on their qualifications and sector, find it costly and time-consuming to get their experience recognized in Canada so that they can find a job in their field. As of 2021, the federal immigration programme designed for this type of entry (the Foreign Skilled Trades Worker Programme or FSTP) had never reached its maximum annual capacity for applicants since its inception in 2013, highlighting the difficulty of entering the country. Women are another example of a demographic where more could be done to support entry into the sector. In 2022, only 9.5% of those employed in trades, transport, equipment operation, and related occupations in Ontario were women. The auto sector’s low gender diversity can be attributed to a mix of subliminal messaging, cultural and workplace norms, and a lack of flexibility and infrastructure to accommodate for responsibilities often expected of women, such as child care. These all come together to form a barrier for women trying not just to enter, but to stay in, the sector.
The issue of child care for parents working in the sector ties in with a fourth finding from our work, which is that attracting and retaining workers requires more than just focusing on providing good wages. Workers need attractive and affordable places to live and work, which is supported through spending on physical and social infrastructure. The first key piece is more affordable and accessible housing. Workers need places to live at affordable prices that are also within range of plants and factories. The second piece is accessible and expansive public transit. As manufacturing plants begin to produce vehicles and workers need to come in to work, stakeholders noted new facilities were not always in locations with accessible public transit. Given that many newcomers to Canada do not own vehicles, and that it may take them time to save up to purchase one, having accessible transit is a critical factor in being accessible for many prospective workers. As this expansion takes place, the focus should be on building networks out regionally to ensure residents of more than just one community can fill open roles. The third piece is social infrastructure like schools and daycare centres. This infrastructure will be needed for communities to accommodate an influx of workers not just from overseas, but also from other regions within Canada. Such infrastructure could also incentivize workers to move to these regions to work, as they can visualize their families living in the area and see themselves as members of their communities, not just employees.
As Ontario seizes the opportunity to manufacture more zero-emissions vehicles, it will be critical to ensure these workforce challenges are solved. Workers will need new skills to work on changing technologies and they will need relevant and timely ways to learn these skills. More workers will also be needed to support this growing sector, and these workers will need places to live that are affordable, accessible, and have the supports needed to allow them to raise their families. In our upcoming reports, we detail these specific challenges and many others. To learn more about what SPI recommends policymakers and stakeholders do to solve them, please check out SPI’s ZEV and Battery manufacturing reports when they are released on Wednesday, December 6, 2023 on our website.