Canadian Manufacturing

How manufacturers can prepare for workforce changes

Companies considering a shift toward more digitized manufacturing practices may want to consider offering training programs aimed at employee retention


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Laurie Compartino, RiseSmart Canada

General Motors layoffs

General Motors announced North American plant closures in late November. Citing sluggish sedan sales, more than 2,500 jobs are set to leave the Greater Toronto Area as General Motors looks to refocus its production to SUVs and crossovers. Plants in Detroit, Michigan, Warren, Ohio, and White Marsh, Maryland, are also slated to close.

And while the news seems bad on the surface, there are signs that the industry is not necessarily shrinking, but stretching into new technologically driven directions. The question every manufacturer should be asking right now: “Is your organization ready for those evolutionary changes to the workforce?”

The ripple effect

Oshawa’s plant closure will affect 2,500 employees, but reports estimate that 15,000 jobs could be swept up in the ripple effect, as the closure impacts the entire automotive supply chain (Source: Government of Canada). Canada currently has 125,000 automotive jobs.

Human resources teams at the shuttered factories will mobilize to help affected employees as best they can, but management teams across the entire supply chain must anticipate the impact on their own organizations and act accordingly.

The power of prediction

The headlines announcing GM’s pre-holiday layoffs were shocking, but many business analysts went on record to say they were not at all surprised. Auto sales have been flat for several years. In GM’s case, consumer spending habits are a direct driving force in the plant closures.

While it might be difficult to predict shifting consumer taste and behaviour and its effect on the economy, it is possible to stay one step ahead of trends in other areas, or, to use a hockey analogy, go “where the puck is going, not where it is.”

Artificial intelligence and coding, according to a recent Canadian government report, will be the future of the Canadian automotive industry, as more autonomous vehicles take to the roadways. Early estimates indicate that 34,000 jobs could be created to fulfill demand for these cars within the next few years. And while General Motors is shedding 2,500 jobs, it has already added 1,000 jobs in the Greater Toronto Area with this new tech focus. The development of a more techno-centric workforce is already underway.

Organizational and individual preparedness

Technological advancements might be viewed as a threat to long-term employees with a certain skill set, especially those in more traditional assembly line jobs. Indeed, some companies will employ strategies where they simply lay off employees who lack certain technological skills. Instead of relying on the traditional layoff, recruit, onboard, train, repeat every time there is a downturn. Companies looking to retain institutional knowledge and build better brands along with customer and employee loyalty are looking at ways to reskill, upskill, retrain and retain workers.

Companies considering a shift toward more digitized manufacturing practices may want to consider offering training programs aimed at employee retention. Those training programs might reside in-house, be government-sponsored, or exist within local colleges with robotics and supply chain management programs.

When those training programs aren’t available through an employer, individuals in the manufacturing industry might want to take notice of the changes in progress and take ownership to actively pursue reskilling opportunities as part of a personalized professional development plan. Human resources professionals can serve as advocates for the employees, and facilitators of this professional development programming.

Communication is key

For those manufacturers supporting the automotive industry, the key to future business success might just lie in management’s ability to provide the kind of communication and transparency that will result in a dedicated workforce willing to go the extra mile. Changes to the workforce can be addressed in simple ways, such as one-on-one conversations, team meetings and all company newsletters.

During one-on-one employee meetings, managers and HR professionals might ask individual employees, “What are you doing to be ready for technological changes to the manufacturing industry?” This type of question can open the door for more conversations about preparedness. HR teams can provide valuable linkage between the employee and programs that can help advance the employee’s skill set.

When Layoffs are Necessary

Sometimes, even after steps are made to avoid them, layoffs become a necessary reality. When layoffs cannot be avoided, the way a company handles workforce restructuring can make a strong public statement about corporate values. It is possible to lay off a person, and also take care of that person through severance plans that include support services, such as outplacement or redeployment.

Providing outplacement services is the best way to care for employees impacted by workforce changes. Through a combination of high-touch and high-tech services employees are able to land new roles faster than they could on their own. Through resume writing services, hand-picked job leads, access to recruiters and personalized career coaching services, impacted employees get the support they need to find their new career beginnings with greater ease.

Redeployment is another option for employees swept up in layoffs. Contemporary outplacement services providers can be instrumental in helping employees identify new positions within the same company, and help coach them through the transition. This has benefits for both the employees and companies, as redeployment requires less cost in recruitment and onboarding of new employees, as well as lower severance costs. Additionally, these redeployed employees already have valuable corporate culture equity.

Proactive, not reactive

We all try to be proactive in simple ways, such as checking the weather. If it’s raining, we grab an umbrella. In the coming years, the workforce will look different. It is incumbent upon human resources professionals to prepare, guide and advocate for employees who will be facing that future. Companies like GM may not always be able to accurately predict the economic storms that lie ahead, but with emerging technologies making waves in the headlines, it may be time for companies to develop their workforce now, rather than arrive late to the puck.


Laurie Compartino is the general manager of RiseSmart Canada, a career transition services firm.


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