When the news broke last week that General Electric was going to close its Peterborough plant next year, it sent shock waves through the community as people tried to make sense of the announcement.
At one time, General Electric was the largest employer in the city, with a workforce of more 6,000 people in the 1960s, where today there are close to 360 employs still working inside the plant.
Inventor and businessman Thomas Edison founded the factory here in the city in 1892, and the plant has an incredible legacy in the area, not only as a major employer but as a community builder.
Peterborough United Way CEO Jim Russell says he was aghast when he heard the news of the plant closing and says the agency immediately reached out to offer support for the employees and their families.
“Our immediate concern was more around, what does it mean for those families and those workers,” said Russell. “It’s not just 350 workers, it’s 350 families. So, there’s a multiplier effect when you’re talking about the impact of a decision like this.”
As a not-for-profit, the United Way supports several local agencies and depends on local funding to help make the community better and, as Russell notes, there was no business who donated more to the cause than GE and its employees here.
General Electric has given millions back to the community. Last year they gave $100,000 to the United Way campaign, while in more commercially productive years, Russell says, that contribution was closer to $250,000.
“General Electric has certainly been a very, very generous employer and certainly generous to United Ways across the globe, where United Ways are and certainly we recognize that contribution to communities, but that is a distant second to where our concerns are today,” Russell said.
This news comes as the latest Statistics Canada numbers show Peterborough, at 9.6 per cent, has the highest unemployment rate across the country.
Rhonda Keenan, president and CEO of Peterborough and Kawartha Economic Development team, admits she was shocked when she first heard the news of the plant closing and said her first move was to reach out to offer help for those workers who will need to transition into new jobs.
“We have a strong support network here and everyone is committed to working together,” said Keenan, who has already been in talks with GE staff in order to help the workers and their families transition.
“A number of our manufacturers have expressed that they have skilled shortages and so those that are still considering a path of employment, we would like to keep them here in the community,” she said. “It’s probably premature at this point but we would like to be a part of a job fair to try to match the employers that are seeking employees to the job seekers themselves.”
When one door closes, Keenan suggests, another door will open, pointing out that manufacturing has historically been Peterborough’s strength but says the city is well positioned to enter new markets like environmental and clean energy sectors.
“We’re really starting to get some notoriety for our environmental, clean tech and green technology work,” said Keenan. “I think that is something we can be exploring in the future, with how can we continue to grow the clean tech sector to support this community growing forward.”
While the closure announcement is still setting in, GE has assured that in the year ahead they will help the employees transition to their next jobs and have promised full severance and education and counselling support will be available for all.