3 - Enhancing the skills needed to succeed

Learn more about our recommendations for enhancing the skills needed to succeed, or click here to download the full report.

3.1 Understanding labour force needs, investing in workers’ skills

Labour market skills are constantly evolving. Ensuring workers are equipped with the knowledge and tools needed to do their jobs is necessary to secure work, support sector development and create good jobs. Changes in workplace skills are constant. This reality is why workers, those utilizing the skills, must have a say in how jobs are designed and skills are defined, safeguarding against employer attempts to weaken work standards to save costs. Regular and barrier-free access to training and skills upgrading, including sustainable income supports, is necessary for all workers, including those displaced by new technologies and operational changes at the workplace.

In the auto sector and over time, unions negotiated significant protections for workers – from enhanced income replacement while undergoing training or on layoff, to work ownership language that aims to preserve the integrity of skilled trades. However, in times of transition more supports are necessary, including from government.

Electric vehicle production brings with it new skill demands on workers, especially among those in the supplier base as new components grow in demand, such as battery cells, power electronics and technologically-intensive parts. At the same time, the anticipated rise in automated production systems, artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and mass data processing – the elements of what some perceive as the next phase of advanced industrial manufacturing, or “Industry 4.0” – may affect and alter existing skill sets for autoworkers. Studies warn of potential job disruption, including the elimination of some job-associated duties among autoworkers, affecting production and skilled trades work to varying degrees. Those same studies also project that new skills will surface to offset some of the changes to job duties in areas such as 3D printing, scanning, virtual reality and simulation, cyber security, robotics and mechatronics.

Taking stock of this shifting landscape of skills for the future automotive industry and ensuring workers have access to any necessary training, is critical. This analysis is necessary not just for job retention but for investment attraction and productivity. Workers alone cannot bear the burden of navigating this shifting terrain. As a key pillar of any industrial policy, governments must lead on skills tracking and training supports in collaboration with employers, unions and community partners. The good news is that Canada has a head start thanks to a robust network of training institutions and trades bodies as well as previous experiences dealing with industrial transformation.

  • Mapping and assessing the shifting skills demands for autoworkers resulting from evolving work processes as well as the steady shift to electric vehicle and parts production is a critical tool to manage this transition to net zero. Building an inventory of skills can assist stakeholders in identifying projected needs and existing gaps, assessing capacity and access issues as well as promoting training opportunities to workers.

    Provincial ministries responsible for professional education and training, along with Employment and Social Development Canada, which oversees income assistance programs such as Employment Insurance, sector development funds and Canada’s Labour Market Information infrastructure, must take the lead in convening such a committee. This inventory may also assist in identifying and recruiting workers displaced from subsectors of the broader auto industry (e.g. parts distribution and vehicle dealerships), recruiting workers from other economic sectors facing transition pressures (e.g. oil and gas) and improving the delivery of relevant, high-quality technical and other essential skills training for workers.

3.2 Enhance Canada’s skilled trades

As technology advances and the tools needed to perform work change, it is more important than ever to ensure the qualifications and credentials that underpin Canada’s skilled trades evolve along with it.

Canada needs skilled workers. Labour market forecasts consistently predict severe trade shortages, both in the building and construction trades as well as within the auto sector. Campaigns led by industry groups and government that draw attention to the trades as a career choice for young people are underway in all parts of the country, but are met with at best mixed results. In fact, in the ten years between 2010 and 2020, the number of newly registered industrial millwright apprentices remained static, fluctuating from 1,400 to 2,100 per year, following a similar trend line for industrial electricians.

Employers demand skilled workers but generally want to hire them “ready-trained.” This reluctance to invest in apprentices and skills training is one part of the larger problem. Instead of opening up new spaces for apprentices, too often, employers will attempt to reconfigure and redefine the work that skilled tradespersons do. Rather than enhance their skill sets, the introduction of new technology can lead to disputes over jurisdiction, with employers claiming that new skills and work tasks fall outside a journeyperson’s responsibility. This approach threatens to erode the skill base of trades workers in the auto sector and undermines the quality of work in the long run.

  • As the shift toward electrification and new Industry 4.0 work processes takes place, the pre-existing challenges of trades, attraction, retention and preservation, will rise to the surface. Governments, including provincial trades oversight bodies, must calibrate new skills such as 3D printing and scanning, virtual reality, simulation and robotics through Canada’s Red Seal certification framework or include these skills within expanded scopes of practice across existing trades.

  • The speed at which Canada’s auto industry will transition to electric vehicle production and what that footprint looks like remains unclear. However, within a few years, the outlook on Canada’s auto industry future went from bleak to bright. A rapidly growing industry that is contributing to reduced GHG emissions and achieving Canada’s broader net zero ambitions, has a lot to offer a new generation of workers. Using this appeal as a launchpad to attract young workers into the skilled trades may greatly assist ongoing government and employer recruitment efforts.