Factory closures and job cuts get the headlines, but technology is driving an evolution of Canada’s auto sector as employers compete for highly skilled workers to support expanding research-and-development efforts into the car of the future.
“We are interviewing every day,” said Sara LeBlanc, director of General Motors’ three Canadian tech centres, which routinely have 30-plus open positions.
General Motors needs specialists in active-safety and driver-assist technology. Ford is looking for software developers for its “rapidly growing” vehicle-analytics framework.
Apple, not a company associated with the auto industry, seeks software engineers with “strong problem-solving and debugging skills” for its secretive work on self-driving systems.
The Detroit Three are the most visible players in the tech shift, even if their r&d hiring pales next to production-line layoffs as vehicle output in Canada continues to fall.
GM Canada has hired about 700 of a planned 1,000 tech specialists, mainly for its new Markham Technical Centre near Toronto that develops infotainment and autonomous-driving systems. Fifty kilometres east, Oshawa Assembly, once a 22,000-worker, multiline complex, will employ just 300 when it becomes a parts plant in 2020.
While Ford has announced it will cut 450 workers at its Oakville, Ont., assembly plant, 40 kilometres southwest of Toronto, its Connectivity and Innovation Centre in Ottawa has 500 tech employees, with more hiring expected. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles which plans to end the third shift at its Windsor, Ont., minivan plant — affecting 1,500 workers — employs 180 at its Automotive Research and Development Centre in the city.
Smaller tech firms that have entered the transportation space are also playing key roles in the auto sector’s only growth area.
Like Canada’s tech-heavy universities, these companies and the public and private networks that support them have caught the attention of automakers seeking talent and ideas.
“In Toronto, there’s an amazing ecosystem where you have a lot of start-ups and incubators and accelerators. They also work with us to bring a lot of the advancements that we’re developing,” LeBlanc told Automotive News Canada.
The Ontario government counts more than 200 companies in the province working on connected and self-driving vehicle technologies. How many jobs this represents, however, is harder to pin down.
Apple, for example, won’t comment on the size of its Kanata, Ont., office around the corner from automtive software powerhouse BlackBerry QNX, which also doesn’t disclose its employee count.
The growing high-tech automotive sector is generating new players in the supply chain, said Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association (APMA).
“New technology providers are waking up to automotive and joining the space. Over the last five years we started to see some real interest from pure technology players, curious about automotive joining the APMA.”
Currently, out of about 300 APMA members, 60 are high-tech players “who are in or interested in the automotive space,” Volpe said.
That number is expected to grow along with the content level of high-tech components in vehicles, he said.
“Now with our expanded Stratford [autonomous-vehicle] demonstration zone [and] our forays into things like cybersecurity, we’re getting players you would think had nothing to do with vehicles but have everything to do with mobility and smart cities.” Stratford is 150 kilometres west of Toronto.
For instance, the leadership role of the TorontoWaterloo corridor, which includes Kitchener, in artificial intelligence brought ride-hailing company Uber to Ontario to work with the University of Toronto’s Raquel Urtasun on self-driving cars.