Women in Canadian Manufacturing

GM Oshawa plant’s 1,200 line positions comprised of almost 50% women

March 7, 2022
By The Canadian Press
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The hulking grey shell of GM’s Oshawa assembly plant looks just like it did when the company shut down production on a frigid December day in 2019, but much of what’s inside is strikingly new.

There’s a new product — as of the November restart, the plant makes huge (and hugely profitable) Chevy Silverado pickup trucks — fancy new robots to swing them about the plant, and kilometres of new conveyor lines to usher them through to completion. But maybe the biggest change is a workforce that is not only largely new to the plant, but to the manufacturing sector at large after the automaker made a concerted effort to hire women for about half of the 1,200 line positions.

“I didn’t even know how to use a hammer until I came here,” said Adriana Wilkinson, who is now a production team leader in the body shop.

Like many of the new hires, Wilkinson’s previous job — she ran an escape room — was disrupted by the pandemic, so she said she jumped at the “life-changing opportunity” for her and her family when GM started hiring last year, and now says she’s here for life.

“I never thought I’d be working with vehicles, never knew how to use a tool, and totally out of my comfort zone, but I jumped right in and I love it.”

Others on the line include people like Heather MacLeod, who is starting a new career after retiring from the RCMP; Honey Panchal, a controls system engineer who moved to Canada from India last year; and Crystal Cooper, who moved from customer care at GM to working as a group leader on the final assembly line because she wanted to get out of her element.

“Coming into the manufacturing world was completely different, but it was challenging, and I really wanted to be a part of something bigger,” said Cooper.

The gender parity on the production line is a big shift for an industry where in Canada, women make up only about 23 per cent of auto assembly jobs, according to the Future of Canadian Automotive Labourforce Initiative.

GM Canada president Scott Bell said diversity has been a priority for some time at the company, which is led by Mary Barra and has a gender-balanced board, but he said it was the restart of the plant that led to the push for gender balance.

“We just recognized the fact that we’ve got a unique opportunity, and let’s put the effort in.”

To encourage more women to apply to the job, GM highlighted stories of women who had already worked there as part of its campaign, as well as made sure to do targeted social media advertising, They hardly had to worry though, with some 13,000 people in total applying from across Canada as well as internationally for about 1,800 positions including skilled workers.

The opportunity to hire a whole new workforce, however, came at the expense of the many early retirements, layoffs and disruptions to those who thought production would never return.