Canada needs a new labour force to become a global EV superpower. Here’s how to do it.

“If we make some ambitious moves, we just might be able to make it happen”

Olivier Trescases
A row of electric vehicles in bright colours.

(Illustration by Maclean’s/Photo courtesy of iStock)

A row of electric vehicles in bright colours.
(Illustration by Maclean’s/Photo courtesy of iStock)

My family has always been on the front lines of greenhouse gas reduction. My stepfather, Gary Taylor, was part of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change team that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for highlighting climate change as an existential crisis. Growing up in Toronto in the ’90s, we’d often talk about climate change at the dinner table, and those discussions left a deep impression on me.

I got my introduction to electric vehicles in 2001, during my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at the University of Toronto. I built a custom electric bicycle for my capstone project, never imagining that 22 years later, we’d have roughly 300 million e-bikes on the roads. After earning a master’s and PhD in electrical engineering at U of T and working on automotive chips in Europe, I returned to the campus in 2009, where I launched my own research program as a professor. I also worked on the first-ever Canadian-made highway-rated EV, collaborating with Steve Dallas, the late president of Toronto Electric. We experimented on a two-door hatchback called the “Little Yellow Electric Car” for its mustard-coloured paint job. At the time, our invention was so foreign-looking that the police once pulled Steve over because the car didn’t have a tailpipe. After driving it myself, I knew that these vehicles were the future.

If Canada hopes to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, expanding our presence in the EV industry will be critical. Recently, you’ve likely heard about plans for several massive new EV plants, all expected within the next few years: a $5-billion battery plant in Windsor, Ontario, courtesy of Stellantis and LG Energy Solutions; a $7-billion production plant in St. Thomas, Ontario, from Volkswagen; and a $600-million battery component plant in Becancour, Quebec, from General Motors.

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But does Canada have enough skilled, specialized workers to become a global EV superpower, designing and manufacturing the automobiles of the future while helping to achieve our climate goals? The answer, unfortunately, is probably not—unless we take decisive action. According to Clean Energy Canada, roughly 7,000 Canadians were employed in the EV sector in 2020. That number is expected to grow to 184,000 by 2030. We will need more graduates in electrical, mechanical, industrial and chemical engineering to take on research and development jobs in the EV industry. They’ll need specialized knowledge of power electronics, thermal management, battery integration and robotics, among other topics. EV factories will require classical trade workers too, including welders, vehicle assemblers and machinists.

There are many obstacles to overcome if we want to reach our target. The EV industry is relatively new—we need to attract and educate the incoming workforce while upskilling existing autoworkers. Meanwhile, we’re facing a clean tech brain drain, which I’ve seen firsthand. I’m a professor in the electrical and computer engineering department at U of T, and many of our best engineering graduates go to work in the United States, where they can find lucrative jobs at companies like Tesla and Apple, which have huge R&D budgets. (Roughly one-third of the top 1,000 global R&D spending companies are in the United States, while only 10 are in Canada.) I’ve worked in Silicon Valley and Europe, and I strongly believe that Canada has an unbeatable quality of life that must be leveraged to reverse the brain drain.

It all starts with the youth. These days, students aren’t thinking about working in or near a factory. Many of them lean towards app development, artificial intelligence or machine learning because of what they hear about in the media. They don’t know enough about the opportunities in clean tech and EV manufacturing. Canada’s government should create programs in high schools and universities to show the next generation of workers that clean tech and EV jobs are incredibly rewarding on so many levels; they allow youth to be part of the solution to climate change.

When many people think of the automotive industry, they imagine workers toiling in a dark, grimy factory, but we must show them that the EV industry is futuristic and high-tech. At the high school level, we have to support more industry field trips and clubs focused on EV and robotics, where students can build prototypes and hone their design skills. YouTube has endless fascinating tech videos too. Let’s bring those into schools to inspire future engineers. We should also add EV-related material to the existing curriculum in subjects like math, physics and programming. All of this takes a real investment in training teachers.

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At U of T, we also have the Blue Sky Solar Racing Team, which competes in the World Solar Challenge, where students from across the world build and race solar electric vehicles. The club gets undergrads hyped up about EVs and clean tech. This fall, we’re also rolling out an EV course for master’s and PhD engineering students, among the first of its kind in Canada.

Our course will offer an overview of EV technology and trends, including fast-charging infrastructure, powertrain, battery systems, as well as emerging topics like wireless charging, smart-grid and vehicle-to-grid technologies. We’ll start with a small cohort of under 50 students, but if more universities and colleges implement similar EV-focused courses—ranging from basics to graduate-level research topics—we can eventually produce thousands of skilled workers for the Canadian tech sector.

To keep us on track, we should adopt the strategy used in the medical sector, which monitors how many doctors and nurses are being trained. For the EV industry, we can pay closer attention to the number of engineering students graduating in the next five years and create incentives based on industry needs.

Let’s say we notice a shortage in electrical engineering majors, for instance. The government should then create more scholarships for students pursuing degrees in that field and work directly with universities to clear the class capacity bottlenecks. Canadian companies can also offer more co-op placements in hardware and manufacturing fields that support the EV sector, which will be key because students usually choose a career path in the same sector as their co-op placement.

Students won’t be able to address all of our immediate EV workforce needs, though. As the curriculum chair of the department of electrical and computer engineering, I know that adjusting the curriculum is often a slow process. It can take one or two years to make a significant change, and another four years for students to graduate from the new program. If Canada’s big EV plants and R&D centres are expected to launch production in the next few years, we’ll have to mostly rely on upskilling the existing workforce to fill thousands of those positions.

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That’s what we’re doing at the University of Toronto Electric Vehicle Research Centre, or UTEV, where we work to make EVs more efficient, longer lasting, lighter and cheaper, while adding features that drive interest and convenience, like wireless charging. In 2021, Porsche Canada approached UTEV about developing targeted micro-credentials on EVs, in hopes of educating their Canadian workforce on the latest EV tech. Working with the School of Continuing Studies, we developed a unique program and delivered 450 micro-credentials to all of Porsche’s Canadian employees—everyone from sales associates to the CEO. The program covered similar topics taught in U of T’s new course—how EV sub-systems operate, trends around adoption, emerging tech and more—but it didn’t require an engineering background. It was a resounding success, with great feedback from the trainees.

This sort of upskilling can happen across the industry, bringing the existing workforce up to speed on everything electric. The minister of innovation, science and industry, Francoise-Phillipe Champagne, recently announced an initiative that will invest $250 million to support upskilling across the nation. That’s a great start, but once we have the talent, we need to keep it.

To ensure that our workers are hired by EV companies based here and not in Silicon Valley, the government should provide more competitive, targeted subsidies for EV companies looking to do business in Canada. Last year, the United States announced tax credits for EV battery makers as part of the Inflation Reduction Agreement, which, most recently, forced Stellantis to reconsider if it wanted to move its new EV battery plant south of the border. Our federal officials need to use similar tactics to persuade more EV businesses to come to Canada, with a focus on pairing manufacturing with high-quality R&D jobs.

Right now, Canada doesn’t have enough skilled, specialized workers to become an EV superpower and reach net-zero by 2050. But if we make some ambitious moves, we just might be able to make it happen.

Olivier Trescases is a Canada Research Chair in Power Electronic Converters; he is the curriculum chair of the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto and the director of the University of Toronto Electric Vehicle Research Centre.

—As told to Mathew Silver