Canada has a long history in branch-plant assembly of other countries’ cars. What has largely been missing is original-vehicle engineering and research and development done in Canada by Canadians.
But that’s changing in a hurry. General Motors is growing its product-engineering head count in Canada to 1,000 from about 350. Ford is investing $500 million in research and development, including 300 engineers based in Canada, many at a planned research-and-engineering centre in Ottawa. Meanwhile, FCA’s Automotive Research and Development Centre (a collaboration with the University of Windsor in Ontario) last year celebrated its 20th anniversary with an injection of funding from the province.
Can Canada supply enough engineers to staff these facilities? That doesn’t seem to be an issue, according to Jonathan Hack, a former GM engineer and now president of the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE). For one thing, Hack says, a study found “only 33 per cent of engineering degree holders worked in engineering jobs, so there’s quite an opportunity.”
Another study, by Engineers Canada, reported engineering-school enrollment had grown to 81,000 undergraduates in 2015, an increase of 32 per cent from 2010.
The growth of engineering opportunities in Canada is a big deal, says Olivier Trescases, a University of Toronto (U of T) professor specializing in electric vehicles. Currently, “many of our best graduates go straight to Silicon Valley after graduation.” And while he’s gratified to see U of T alumni contributing to some of the world’s most innovative companies in the United States, “I’m also very happy to see some of the new OEM initiatives focusing on high-quality design oriented engineering jobs (in Canada); that’s what our graduates are looking for.”
Trescases cautions that, globally, automakers opening huge new engineering clusters shouldn’t take it for granted that hundreds or even thousands of engineers will be available on demand.
“In fact this takes a longterm coordinated approach between industry, government and post-secondary institutions,” he said.
For now, cutting-edge work at Canada’s universities is in large part why automakers are growing their engineering presence in Canada: “There are so many different fields of engineering, and some of the new programs are of particular interest to auto companies,” said Hack.
“One I would mention is Mechatronics; there’s a huge demand for that.” Mechatronics is a discipline that blends mechanical engineering with electronics, computer engineering, and more.
So, while GM plans to spend $10 million on its long-established cold-weather testing facility in Kapuskasing, Ont., and Ford will expand work on powertrain technologies and alternative fuels at its Windsor Powertrain Engineering Research and Development Centre (PERDC), those are minor asides to the main new narrative of automotive engineering in Canada.
GM’s and Ford’s Canadian activities will focus on “new age” technologies such as infotainment, connected vehicles, active safety and autonomous drive systems.
Historically, GM has been the leader in Canada-based engineering. Its Canadian Regional Engineering Centre (CREC) in Oshawa was formed in 2001 to conduct vehicle development and validation; one of its first projects was the original 2005 Chevrolet Equinox. In 2007 its mandate changed to focus on applied research and development and advanced-technology innovation. Now, not only is the Oshawa engineering facility at capacity with 350 employees, GM Canada has opened a Markham (Ont.) Campus to accommodate the expansion to 1,000 in total. Markham will focus on infotainment while Oshawa will continue with active safety and controls.
“There is definitely a lot of talent in Canada,” said Uzma Mustafa, manager of communications for GM’s Canadian Technical Centres. “We are actively recruiting. We participate in university events and engineering competitions. We are quite confident we will be able to reach our goal.”
Hack credits GM Canada’s current president, Steve Carlisle, with the redirection and resurgence of engineering at the Canadian subsidiary. Carlisle is an engineering graduate from the University of Waterloo, west of Toronto, and “is very familiar with the talent at Waterloo and their research ... developing fantastic partnerships in communications technology with Blackberry/QNX and others.”
The Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research (WatCAR) claims to be the country’s largest automotive-academic enterprise, with 125 researchers working on active safety, automated driving and more.
In Ottawa recently, Blackberry’s QNX subsidiary opened its Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Centre (AVIC). Between the likes of QNX, Google, Apple and Uber, there’s a complex web of tech firms either collaborating with or competing against the automakers in the new world of connected and automated vehicles. And those companies also compete for engineering talent.
Linamar, a Tier One supplier based in Guelph, Ont., has about 500 engineers working on process and product innovation. When it comes to recruiting, “Linamar is not just competing with other automotive or manufacturing companies,” says Director of Organizational Development Shaun Scott. “We face competition from technology companies as well as retail and banking industries that are pursuing engineers.”
Still, he says, “we remain confident we can find the engineering expertise we require.” He said Linamar has recently recruited from Waterloo, McMaster University in Hamliton, Ont., University of Guelph (Ont.), Carleton University in Ottawa, and Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ont., “however, we are not averse to recruiting from any institution. It is not so much the institution as it is the students that fit our environment.”
Meanwhile, Canada’s traditional automotive speciality — the actual manufacture and assembly of cars and their parts — isn’t being sidelined. “Anything in advanced manufacturing is growing,” says Vincent Guglielmo for the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association.