The perils of the one-industry community

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This week’s announcement by General Motors that it’s closing up shop in Oshawa, Ont., is about more than just the 3,000 job losses. It’s about history. Oshawa is a car community; building cars has long been its lifeblood, and GM has been in the city for decades.

North America, in fact, is abundant with former mine, mill and factory towns. Often, these places were synonymous with the company or goods they produced. And once those businesses closed down or moved away, the communities that relied almost solely upon them for jobs, either direct or indirect, were left behind. Many became ghost towns.

That isn’t likely to happen to Oshawa given its close proximity to Toronto and other industries in place there.

But it’s happened in Canada recently, particularly in the West, following the oil price slump that continues to plague Alberta. In Fort McMurray, people unable to make their mortgage payments mailed their keys to the bank and left town.

Newfoundland was equally devastated by the cod-fishing moratorium in the 1990s that left tens of thousands out of work and destitute in a region where there were few other employment opportunities.

Plant closings crush people’s sense of identity and belonging. They fray the fabric of the impacted community. The shock can, and often does, result in depression, failed marriages, drug abuse and even suicide. In a one-industry community, it’s easy to see how widespread the damage can be. It even helps explain the opioid crisis in the U.S. Midwest, which has been struggling to deal with major job losses in the declining manufacturing sector.

What can governments and industry do to soften the blow? What are they morally obliged to do?

More than ever before, governments in Canada -- and beyond -- have to do better at anticipating what’s ahead. Artificial Intelligence is poised to replace human manpower with automation on a large scale in the near future. The world is rapidly moving away from fossil fuels, even China, as Canada still endeavours to build oil pipelines.

Governments and corporations must invest in training to transition workers out of dying professions and imperilled industries and into viable roles designed with the future in mind.

They must ensure our kids and youth are learning the skills they need now, and in the future, via post-secondary education and apprenticeships. They must pore over labour shortage data and start making those professions attractive with appropriate compensation and benefits. They must figure out what to do about the tsunami of automation heading our way. And there must be a litany of private-public partnerships to ensure vast swaths of people aren’t left with nothing when that tsunami hits.

Are we prepared?