I’d been a Journeyman Machinist for over 25 years, even before I purchased Corma Industries six years ago. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend over the last decade. It seems to me that outside of Oil & Gas work, manufacturing in Alberta is floundering.
As long as Oil & Gas sector was booming, the manufacturing industry was flourishing, but as soon as the biggest resource in Alberta dried up, so did manufacturing. And, yet, manufacturing is at the heart of almost every industry, in some way. Whether it be the automotive industry, infrastructure, alternative energies, mining, construction, avionics, aerospace, medical instruments, retail, agriculture or food and beverage, manufacturing has its hand in every industry.
So why aren’t the federal and the Alberta provincial governments supporting and promoting the heck out of the manufacturing sector? Canada needs goods and services to grow the Gross Domestic Product. But Canada has given away its manufacturing to the global market; places like China, India and Vietnam. Why are we giving our valuable resource to foreign countries? Because it’s more cost-effective?
Hold on, not necessarily. Let’s think for a moment about how important manufacturing really is to Canada’s economy. It supports economic diversity, investment and innovation. It creates jobs, provides value-added products that can be used domestically and/or exported to other markets, it contributes to the federal and provincial GDP, pays taxes and most importantly, it maintains and supports, our Canadian way of life. Why would we want to give that up?
Is importing manufactured goods and services really beneficial? When you consider import tariffs, transportation costs, unpredictable and uncontrolled quality standards, rising labour costs in China, the need Canadian customers have for shorter leads times, etc., bringing manufacturing closer to home starts to make sense.
Now, Alberta manufacturers do face some major challenges. It has been very difficult in recent years, to attract and retain skilled and engaged labour, able to handle fast turnaround times. In addition to labour shortages, a substantial increase in foreign competition has forced Canadian manufacturers to drop their prices to the point that they can no longer compete with foreign manufacturers.
So what do we do to bring manufacturing back to Alberta? Well, the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters published a report entitled “Manufacturing Alberta’s Future” (http://www.cme-mec.ca/download.php?file=hujy5qec.pdf) which proposes to double Alberta’s manufacturing output by 2020. This report lists recommendations to revitalize the sector. The entire manufacturing industry in Alberta must work together to make these recommendations a reality.
According to the report, revitalization starts with sector diversification, innovation and investment. First, we need to promote local manufacturing to a larger variety of industries. There is a huge need for producing goods and services in Alberta beyond the traditional energy industry. Instead of just focusing on Oil & Gas, we need to create opportunities to support other sectors.
Secondly, we need to get the provincial and federal governments on board to make manufacturing in Alberta a priority. In her television address on April 7, 2016, Premier Rachel Notley alluded to investing in infrastructure and diversifying the economy, but was short on specifics. She never once mentioned supporting and promoting manufacturing in Alberta, through investments from the private sector and the government. We need to educate the government and the private sector about how important the sector is to Alberta’s economy.
Thirdly, the manufacturing sector itself will have to adapt to change. We may need to re-evaluate and revise our training programs to attract and retain educated employees adept at keeping pace with technological change. But we need to think outside the box to adapt to labour challenges. For example, if finding reasonably-priced, skilled and motivated labour is an issue, then we will have to invest in automation. This is scary, particularly for small manufacturing shops, because of the upfront costs of purchasing expensive machinery, but the cost savings can be remarkable in the long run, especially with the technological advances that allow machines to now run unmanned. Believe me, other provinces have already invested heavily in automation.
Not only does Alberta need to develop a reputation as a leader in the manufacturing industry, but we must also look for new markets and export opportunities as well. This will take a collaboration between governments at all levels, decision-makers in the private sector, educational institutions and manufacturers.
The ability to re-energize the manufacturing industry bring back this province’s wealth is possible and within our reach, but it will be up to producers to lead the way and bring about opportunities in Alberta.
I am the owner of Corma Industries, a machine shop based in Calgary, AB. We specialize in CNC milling and turning for a variety of clients in a multitude of industries such as oil & gas, exploration, geophysical, mining, alternative energy, research and development, agriculture, food and beverage, office furniture, aerospace, heavy construction and infrastructure, forestry, and more. Check out our website at www.cormaindustries.ca.