TORONTO — Canada's Ontario government on Thursday released its plan to support the automotive sector, promising to assist suppliers, boost high-tech skills training and revamp how the province attracts investments.
According to a copy of the “Driving Prosperity” plan obtained by Automotive News Canada, the government would seek to maintain current production volume in Ontario while attracting new investments. The report comes as the province, federal government and labor respond to General Motors’ plans to end production at its Oshawa assembly plant by the end of 2019.
The Ontario government continues to talk to General Motors about keeping its Oshawa plant operating beyond 2019, but the minister of economic development said the militant moves by Unifor are not helping matters.
“The Unifor message hasn’t been helpful, not just for General Motors but the auto industry in Ontario,” Todd Smith told Automotive New Canada on Thursday in Toronto.“We would really like to have a better partner with Unifor so we’re looking after those affected employees in Oshawa. We’re committed with training colleges and universities and the rapid response team that is on the ground there to help with re-training with some of the programs we’re putting in place like the microcredentialing pilot for affected workers and some of the other programs.
"There’s opportunities for those workers, but we need Unifor to come to the table and work with us so we can look after those employees and find them employment elsewhere.”
Ontario still plans on luring new auto investment to the province by launching what it calls a “Job Site Challenge,” wherein municipalities, developers and economic development corporations pitch sites between 500 and 1,500 acres on which manufacturers can develop a new plant. The winning site would receive support from the province in “on-site readiness and servicing to ensure the development opportunity is competitive” for companies seeking to invest in Ontario. That approach would be a departure from the current practice of pointing potential investors in the direction of several sites.
Other plans include streamlining the approvals process for manufacturing sites, updating apprenticeship training and offering “re-employment support” for autoworkers who lose their jobs.
'Just the first step'
“Our Driving Prosperity plan is just the first step in an ongoing consultation with the proud men and women in Ontario’s auto sector,” said Smith, Ontario minister of economic development, job creation and trade, in a statement. “Going forward, we will continue working with the sector, as well as municipalities and the federal government, on longer-term priorities.”
The plan outlined broad goals for the government and industry to pursue, but was short on specifics and did not include funding figures. A request for further details from a spokeswoman for Smith’s office was not immediately returned.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Smith were scheduled to announce the plan on Thursday morning at the Woodbridge Foam Corp., a supplier in Woodbridge, Ont., north of Toronto. Smith was also expected to discuss details of the plan at the Automotive News Canada Congress in Toronto on Thursday afternoon.
The announcement comes as Canada grapples with its role in a changing automotive landscape. The impending end of production at GM Oshawa is only the latest blow to Canadian auto manufacturing, which has seen production levels drop by about 25 per cent since 2000, according to the provincial government.
The plan acknowledges some of the headwinds Canada has faced in attracting investment, including uncertainty on trade policy with the United States, where ratification of the new North American trade pact remains uncertain.
'Everything possible to protect jobs'
“Government can’t hold back the tides of global economic trends or market forces,” the report reads. “But we can make sure the province is doing everything possible to protect jobs and make Ontario open for business.”
In addition to the Job Site Challenge, the Ontario government said it would “explore support” for “major” investments in the auto industry. While short on specifics, it’s a notable promise coming from Ford, who railed against what he called “corporate welfare” on the campaign trail in 2018.
The government’s other plans to increase Ontario’s competitiveness include “improving the transparency” of property tax assessments and marketing the province to foreign companies as a place to invest.
It also said it would create the Ontario Automotive Modernization Program, designed to “assist automotive parts suppliers become more productive, innovative and export-focused through the adoption of technology.” Details about the program were not known, but the province said it “builds off” the Automotive Supplier Competitiveness Improvement Program, which provides financial support to suppliers who adopt “industry-leading software, hardware and/or [provide] training to improve processes and boost competitiveness.”
The Ontario government said it would also create an “online learning and training portal” for workers to acquire automotive-related skills, and it promised to boost funding for the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network’s internship and fellowship program.
“Greater industry collaboration in skills planning and development is required to ensure the long-term supply of workers with the specific skills the auto sector requires,” the plan reads. “There is low awareness of career options and new pathways opening up in manufacturing. Many of these careers are steeped in technology, but we are not preparing our children for this future.”
The government said it would issue a second part to its report that “will address longer-term challenges and opportunities” facing the industry.
The province said its plan was based, in part, on recommendations made by Ray Tanguay, the former federal and Ontario automotive adviser, in his 2018 “Drive to Win” report.
Funding committed over the next three years for phase one is as follows in Canadian dollars:
- $10 million to the Ontario Automotive Modernization Program;
- $3 million toward the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network’s new “WinterTech” development stream;
- $2 million for the Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network’s new enhanced Talent Development stream;
- $3 million to fund the micro-credentials pilot;
- $19 million for new internships and other experiential learning opportunities and;
- $3.2 million toward online learning and training portal.
At current exchange rates, those programs add up to about $30 million in U.S. dollars.
Perry Lefko contributed to this report.