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‘It’s scary, no doubt about it’: How former GM workers coped with their plant closure

After nearly 30 years at the General Motors plant in Windsor, Ont., having been employed there all of his adult working life, Duncan St. Amour was left with one terrifying question when its closure was announced: What do I do now?

It was 2008 when it was revealed that the transmission plant would be shutting down in two years, with about 1,400 workers, including St. Amour, set to lose their jobs.

“It was like a bomb; I was in shock,” said St. Amour, who had done a series of jobs at the plant, including on the assembly line. “I did not know what I was going to do.”

Today, he can relate to the 2,500 GM workers in Oshawa, Ont., many of whom are likely experiencing those same emotions of fear and panic after learning this week that the car manufacturer would be shuttered that plant next year.

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Sleepless nights

The Windsor shutdown was a devastating blow to St. Amour, who, at 48, felt his job prospects were bleak. With a family to support, it led to some sleepless nights.

But he said he brainstormed and came up with a plan to start a business, to “be in control of my fate, my destiny.”

duncan st amour

Duncan St. Amour says he can relate to the GM workers in Oshawa. Many are likely experiencing the same emotions of fear and panic he felt after his plant shut down in Windsor, Ont., eight years ago. (Jason Viau/CBC)

St. Amour started a bin rental company that drops off and picks up waste-disposal bins. And while striking out on his own was challenging and difficult, his company has since become a success.

“But I had to go out there and hustle,” he said. “You got to come up with a good, viable plan. This is what it’s all about.”

Tony Sisti, also affected by the GM plant closure in Windsor, was 50 at the time. He said it took him at least a year to figure out his next steps.

‘It’s scary, no doubt about it’

Sisti took a course about opening a small business and learned how to put together a business plan, and that led to him becoming a workplace safety consultant.

“It’s scary, no doubt about it. There’s a lot of workers that I talked to who were afraid, [who said] ‘I don’t know if I can do  it.’ So I just say: Listen man, you’ve got to put your best foot forward.”

Heather McMillan, the executive director of the Durham Workforce Authority, a labour organization in the region where the Oshawa plant is located, said that once the initial shock of being laid off wears off, there are some great employment opportunities in the area.

McMillan herself is a former autoworker, born and raised in Oshawa, who was laid off around 10 years ago. But she was able to transition to the job she currently holds.

“We do have employers, overall, saying that they’re looking for workers, that they don’t have workers for what they need,” she said. “We can start to see very quickly that these workers could transition into other things within the local community and probably not need to leave the community.”

In the region, she says there are currently some opportunities in transportation and logistics, as the area hosts several food-distribution hubs, including a Loblaws warehouse, and the Port of Oshawa, a national deep-sea port.

gm plant closing

At least 1,200 workers lost their jobs when the GM transmission plant in Windsor closed its doors in 2010. (Jerry Mendoza/Associated Press)

Academic upgrading

Layoffs can also represent a chance for academic upgrading, McMillan said, which would broaden the potential for employment in other sectors. She knows of several autoworkers who have gone back to school to take on lower-level jobs in the medical field, for example, or to work as water-treatment technicians.

But taking time to go to college to upgrade skills may not be so simple, said Wayne Lewchuk, with McMaster University’s school of labour studies.

“Even taking a year off, it’s a challenge,” he said. “The mortgage still has to be paid, et cetera.”

The labour market is not kind to people who are leaving jobs mid-career, Lewchuk said, particularly those with the kind of skills held by the majority of workers at the GM plant, who are assemblers working on lines.

“In terms of what they can take [from] those skills and transfer to other sectors — I don’t think there’s a whole lot for a lot them.”

GM’s plant closure announcement does come at a time when Canada’s unemployment rate is hovering around a four-decade low, employer demand is strong, and there’s growth in the manufacturing sector, said Brendon Bernard, an economist with the job search site Indeed Canada.

Auto manufacturing has fewer job postings on average than other areas of the overall manufacturing sector, he said, noting that openings are more plentiful in such fields as machinery manufacturing or fabricated metal production.

“So these industries … offer a sort of next step, potentially, for workers affected by the GM closure,” Bernard said.

“I think that the concern is that the auto sector still pays quite well. So while affected workers might be able to find jobs, chances are they’re not going to be as well paying as what they’re leaving.”

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