Much has been in the news lately about the negotiations to re-work the North American Free Trade Agreement. But a lot of those discussions have focused on the U.S. and Mexico, particularly because of the large trade deficit the U.S. has with its southern neighbor.
There are times that Canada seems like the forgotten figure in the equation. Its trade with the U.S. has increased post-NAFTA, but the two nations enjoy a relatively stable trade balance. The treaty also hasn't been a great boon to Canada's manufacturing sector—Mexico and the U.S. receive the lion's share of automotive investment dollars—but it also hasn't gutted manufacturing in the way some predicted.
But while a strong manufacturing sector is desired as much in Canada as in the U.S., there is one association that has quietly championed the rubber industry in Quebec for years. The Elastomer Valley group currently boasts 20 company members and has helped foster growth and advance such initiatives as an enhanced training program that has benefited all its members.
Under Director Claude Harvey, Elastomer Valley has gained representation across the spectrum of the rubber industry, from rubber product makers to suppliers, to engineering and testing firms. Several of those members are major players in their respective markets, bringing smaller specialty groups in contact with larger companies. But even the larger members can benefit, gaining potential access to innovative ideas that often emanate from the smaller members of the group.
Together, they're able to support each other and speak with a unified voice in government/regulatory settings, an activity that can be expensive for a large firm, and impossible to achieve for smaller ones. The association encourages networking among company representatives, and has organized international delegations that have visited France, Brazil and the U.S. Midwest to try to gain business outside of the Quebec region.
One area where Elastomer Valley has made a clear impact is in the area of worker training. Its trade school in Magog began as a high school vocational program, but became a stand-alone school in 2006 when it was clear there was a lack of trained labor for the region's rubber companies. Association members teamed with Canada's Ministry of Education to bring in equipment and experts for training.
About 20 new students are admitted each year to the 12-month training program, which is followed by a six-month internship. Another 50 others currently working in rubber firms or coming in from another industry take classes to improve their skills.
The next major project on the Elastomer Valley to-do list is the potential development of an R&D center to focus on finding rubber-based solutions for customers of group members. Although still a year or two down the road, the aim is to establish the group as a knowledge center for the industry, with the end goal of spurring additional investment and attracting new businesses.
In an era where Canada may at times seem overshadowed, these activities show the Elastomer Valley group has helped keep rubber manufacturing thriving in Quebec.