Windsor·DIVERSIFICATION

Preventing Windsor from becoming a 'depressed area,' expert urges diversification

Windsor is "caught asleep at the wheel" when it comes to its complacency in the automotive industry, and a retired local business professor says there's a lack of drive to further diversify the economy.

Manufacturing jobs in the region continue to climb, up roughly 10,000 since 2009.

Alfie Morgan is a retired business professor at the University of Windsor. He says perseverance and persistence is something that's needed to take the diversification of Windsor's economy seriously, especially in an auto town that often toots its own horn. (CBC)

Windsor is "caught asleep at the wheel" when it comes to its complacency in the automotive industry, and a retired local business professor says there's a lack of drive to further diversify the economy.

Manufacturing jobs in the region continue to climb, up roughly 10,000 workers since 2009, according to Statistics Canada. However, Alfie Morgan said the region continues to do a lot of simple assembly and "that niche is vanishing in front of our eyes."

"This is a wake up call and we should really wake up and take this matter very seriously," said Morgan, professor emeritus of business at the University of Windsor.

He said politicians and local businesses should be taking diversification even more seriously after GM announced it's closing the Oshawa assembly plant, affecting thousands of auto workers. Even Windsor mayor Drew Dilkens has said that "we need to start planning as if we've just been given notice that 2025 is the year this [Chrysler] plant will close."

"It would really be very serious for us because not only would we lose the employment that we have, but also we'll become, sort of, designated as a depressed area," said Morgan. "Who wants to come to a depressed area?"

Justin Falconer, senior director at Workforce WindsorEssex, said the biggest challenge is finding out how to diversify a growing sector like manufacturing. (Jason Viau/CBC)

Workforce WindsorEssex underscores the region's "rather bullish" local economy for three years running, with job numbers "at an all time high." Windsor's biggest sector, which is manufacturing, is continuing to grow.

"The real challenge is how do you diversify a sector like manufacturing when it's in fact your strongest performer in the growth right now," said senior director Justin Falconer. "The real answer is maybe looking at some of the sub sectors in manufacturing."

What should Windsor do?

Morgan said the city's biggest mistake in diversification is "letting the leaders do it." The initiative needs a champion or group of catalysts to push forward in a meaningful way, he adds.

Morgan believes Windsor should pursue some sectors more aggressively, including the automotive tech sector in electrification, artificial intelligence and autonomous cars. 

"We are not really doing enough in this area," said Morgan. He also believes the logistics sector and light industries are opportunities right now.

More can be done

Rakesh Naidu is president of the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce. (Derek Spalding/CBC)

President of the region's chamber of commerce agrees more can be done to further diversify Windsor's economy, but Rakesh Naidu believes "we're moving in the right direction."

I don't see the vigorous effort yet. I hear a lot of talk.- Alfie Morgan, retired business professor

Naidu also believes diversifying away from the auto sector isn't the right move. That industry has leveraged the expertise in other areas such as food processing, logistics or medical devices. Moving forward, he wants to see a focus on small business.

"It not only helps on diversification, but we create the next generation of medium to large scale companies and we create a lot of employment opportunities through them," said Naidu.

So, how does Windsor move beyond simply talking about diversification and press forward in an aggressive way, as Morgan suggests?

'Who will light fire under their kilt?'

The best way to accomplish this diversification is to mobilize local entrepreneurs and business people to take the risk and invest in new opportunities, he said. Morgan stresses they are the ones who are going to innovate and change.

That may be easy to say coming from someone who isn't putting his own money on the line. But in order to persuade those businesses to take that risk and diversify, Morgan said it would take a team of people to identify quantifiable opportunities that will yield a return on their investment.

"Nothing attracts business people like profit potential," said Morgan.

Morgan wonders "who will light fire under their kilt?"

He said that could be politicians at any level of government and providing incentives or funding for companies to dive into diversification.

"The role of the politicians is to find that catalyst and support that catalyst."

Diversification could take years

It will take a minimum of three years, Morgan believes, for Windsor to position its economy and diversify its efforts away from automotive. That's if the catalyst of diversification, as he calls it, pursues opportunities right away both "intensively and vigorously."

"I don't see the vigorous effort yet. I hear a lot of talk," said Morgan.

Perseverance and persistence is something Morgan believes is needed to take the diversification of Windsor's economy seriously, especially in an auto town that often toots its own horn.

About the Author

Jason Viau is a video journalist, TV host and radio newsreader at CBC Windsor. He was born in North Bay, but has lived in Windsor for most of his life. Since graduating from St. Clair College, he's worked in print, TV and radio. Email him at jason.viau@cbc.ca

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