In 1991, the last time General Motors’ engine and transmission plant in St. Catharines, Ontario hired production workers, gas was $1.16 a gallon, annual tuition at Harvard was $23,500, and the World Wide Web had just been invented at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN.)

Back then, manufacturing plants—and the accepted ideas about the capabilities that people needed to work in them—were also a lot different than they are today. Top-down, command-and-control management structures were still the rule, and new hires into the plant were selected more for their strong backs than their strong minds.

So, in 2013, when GM decided to resume hiring at the St. Catharines plant in response to an improving automotive market and rising retirements among its highly stable workforce, the company decided to rethink the type of plant floor worker it needed to compete in a Manufacturing 4.0 era and the culture in which that new generation of worker would best thrive. That led to a transformation, not just of the hiring and new employee onboarding processes at St. Catharines, but also of how GM engages its employees to drive continuous improvement, and of the role of leadership in the plant.

Last week, GM North America Manufacturing Manager Bill Shaw and leaders from St. Catharines engaged in an in-depth panel discussion and shared their insights and experiences from that transformation with members of the Manufacturing Leadership Council who toured the plant where 850,000 engines and transmissions are made each year.

Shaw and St. Catharines Plant Manager Carolyn Watts said that, behind the need for a new type of worker and a more collaborative culture is rapidly-accelerating, technology- and market-driven change facing GM and other car makers. That’s exemplified by rapid changes in the products themselves. Already, 4 million GM cars on the road are equipped with 4g LTE mobile services supporting things such as turn-by-turn navigation and stolen vehicle recovery. By next year, every vehicle coming off GM’s lines in the U.S. will have that technology, enabling GM to transition to vehicle-to-vehicle communications and autonomous driving features.

“We expect to see more change in the next five-to-ten years than we’ve see in the previous 50,” Shaw told the MLC members.

With that rapid technological change—and the rapid growth of new markets such as China—manufacturing at GM is under pressure to get new vehicles to market faster while reducing costs and improving quality. And, GM has concluded that the best way to do that is to enable engagement, collaboration, and a culture of continuous improvement that extends all the way down to the people on the plant floor.

To support that, GM has laid the same foundation that many other large manufacturers have, implementing a standard set of manufacturing processes and procedures–what it calls the GM Global Manufacturing System–which spells out standard work in the form of common bills of process, equipment, and IT. GMS gives existing workers as well as newcomers a common language and set of procedures for identifying and solving production problems and for incorporating process changes that can continuously improve productivity, quality, and safety.

At GM and elsewhere, those standard processes are becoming much more collaborative and increasingly driven by real time plant floor data. At St. Catharines, for examples, production, engineering, and maintenance workers and leaders collaborate constantly using a process called the Method Action Plan to monitor constraints and defects and to come up with fixes on the fly.

But GM’s St. Catharines plant also needed the right people who could thrive in such a collaborative environment. The company’s plan to resume hiring at St. Catharines in 2013 presented the opportunity to redefine the ideal plant worker for the future and to integrate that new cadre into the production environment.

First, Shaw’s team rethought qualifications it would require of new hire candidates. The team decided that prior plant floor experience was less important than experience indicating that the candidate was strong on communications, collaboration, teamwork, and leadership. Candidates who made the first cut also needed to demonstrate an affinity for working with technology.

Of the 300 new hires St. Catharines has brought in—out of 16,000 applicants—virtually all had college degrees, but not necessarily in technical fields. Many who got hired had job experience in non-manufacturing fields such as financial services.

Candidates who survived a resume review and written test were then required to perform a physical test that simulated assembly steps on the plant floor. As much as wanting to determine whether each candidate had the dexterity to do the job, the St. Catharines team also wanted to determine of the candidate could think critically about the task they were asked to perform. Candidates were asked to suggest improvements to the process.

New hires were then put through a two-week onboarding process during which they were exposed to the GMS and told to emphasize quality over quantity. They were also paired with mentors who volunteered for the job. Plant Manager Watts said many workers with 30-plus years at St. Catharines have jumped at the chance to mentor new hires, feeling it’s important to pass on to the next generation of workers knowledge that would otherwise be lost.

It’s also seen as important for the ongoing success of the plant. Said one union leader who has also served as a mentor: “We will either live together or die together. People understand that this is a global market.”

Once on the job, new hires were also encouraged from the start to engage in improving the plant’s processes, with a particular focus on safety. GM’s STAR program, for example, includes start-of-shift meetings that are used to align daily goals and provide a forum for all team members to ask team leaders questions or raise concerns. The program also includes ongoing mentoring and the opportunity for team members to volunteer as area safety leaders. Several new hires have already taken on this role.

But finding and assimilating a new generation of workers was only part remaking the St. Catharines culture. The plant’s leadership team also had to be “repurposed” to drive more day-to-day decision-making down to newly hired and engaged workers on the plant floor. The goal was to have Group Leaders spend more of their time—60% was the target—working on strategic problem solving rather than minute-to-minute fire-fighting on the plant floor. Standard work for Group Leaders was redefined, as were role-and-responsibility definitions and problem escalation processes, emphasizing that fire-fighting was to be performed on the plant floor by teams and their leaders.

Studies, however, showed that, Group Leaders remained reluctant to give up their hands-on role on the line. Even after the redefinition, some were still spending only about 5% of their time on strategic problem solving.

The St. Catharines team made progress on leadership “repurposing” only after the Group Leaders’ bosses—the Business Team Managers—were made part of the change and backed the idea that primary responsibility for fixing day-to-day problems should be handled on the plant floor. The lesson: Cultural transformation requires trust, and leaders must be engaged.

While cultural transformation is still a work in progress, the results have been positive at St. Catharines. GM has seen a 98% retention rate for new hires there over the past two years. And quality and throughput have been maintained despite the influx of new, relatively inexperienced workers.