What does the new VW plant mean for workers in St. Thomas?

April 4, 2023

The announcement of Volkswagen’s new battery plant in St. Thomas, Ontario is great news for the province. It cements Southwestern Ontario’s position as a North American battery manufacturing hub. Along with the LG-Stellantis plant in Windsor, these investments will help shape an emerging zero-emissions vehicle industry, serving as a magnet to attract further investment to the region. This is also a chance for a growing Canadian automotive and battery sector to create even more jobs.

However, to support Southern Ontario, there are two short-term challenges that need to be solved to realize these long-term benefits. If these challenges go unaddressed, the region risks not being able to capture the full benefits of these investments.

Challenge 1: We Need To Fill These Jobs

First, these plants need to attract enough skilled workers to fill these emerging jobs. Southwestern Ontario has lately become a hotspot for investment. Major investments from Maple Leaf Foods, Amazon and now Volkswagen are expected to create thousands of new jobs in the London area alone. Yet, the region is already facing skilled labour shortages. The Elgin-Middlesex-Oxford Workforce Planning and Development Board has identified that London already has over 6,000 job vacancies, and concerns are being raised by local businesses about managing the short-term impacts of growing this quickly. The impacts economic growth will have on finding workers will go beyond a single sector, and spill over into the region as the demand grows for roles in healthcare, retail, service sectors and food services.

Challenge 2: We Need Workers to Have the Right Set of Skills

The second challenge is to ensure workers have the skills needed to fill these emerging roles. Although the scale of the investment and the exact number of jobs it will create are not yet known, it is expected that the plant, opening in 2027, will create between 2000 - 3000 new jobs. The Trillium Center for Advanced Manufacturing has estimated that jobs in the plant will be roughly 20% engineers, 20% scientists and technical experts, and 60% manufacturing workers. On top of this, another 5000 roles could be created for the plant’s suppliers throughout Ontario.

As the battery sector is relatively new in Ontario, there is some uncertainty around the exact skills that workers will need to fill these roles. Our ongoing research with Future Skills Centre has identified some of these needs, including: more familiarity with battery chemistries amongst chemists and electrical and mechanical engineers; more familiarity with digital technology and automation solutions; and, a strong need for cybersecurity expertise. Training bodies, universities and colleges, and apprenticeship programs within the region have been working towards updating programming, but swift action will be needed to plug this gap.

Moving Forward

These challenges are not insurmountable. St. Thomas, and London more broadly, have the unique advantage of having the time to plan and prepare for the heightened demand for skilled workers investments into the region will predictably create. It can work with local partners to develop workforce plans, update training curriculums, and ensure all workers entering the sector have the supports they need. The region can work to ensure federal immigration programs bring in workers with the right skill sets for roles that cannot be filled by locals. St. Thomas also has the advantage of being able to look at how its neighbor, Windsor, is preparing to meet their skilled labour demand with the LG/Stellantis EV battery plant opening next year.

St. Thomas has scored a major win for Canada’s ambitions to become a player in the global shift towards zero-emissions vehicles. This should be celebrated - it is a win for the region, for Ontario, and for Canada. Now that the investment is here, policymakers also need to ensure they are prepared to manage the growth of the region and the workforce that follows, so Southwestern Ontarians can continue to benefit in the decades to come.