UK: Plymouth's dockyard blues. (2 of 2)

UK: Plymouth's dockyard blues. (2 of 2) - Ironically, what lies outside the dockyard walls may well be a future right back inside them. The dockyard has been subcontracting services to former employees now working as self-employed contractors and this th

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Ironically, what lies outside the dockyard walls may well be a future right back inside them. The dockyard has been subcontracting services to former employees now working as self-employed contractors and this threatens the jobs of former colleagues still in work. "One of the complaints that the union is presently articulating", says Clark, "is that further redundancies are arising because teams of contractors are coming in and doing work which used to be done by people on the permanent payroll."

For most people the final walk through the dockyard gates remains final. Finding a job is not easy. Not only is there little by way of equivalent alternative employment within the city, but many of the jobs have the same end customer - the Ministry of Defence. The yard has also a strong lifetime employment tradition, and many of its labour force have never worked anywhere else. Managers with 20 years of steady promotions behind them are finding themselves on the job market, having never written a CV in their life.

Paul Bishop points to a study undertaken by colleagues into the subsequent employment history of people who left the dockyard between 1987 and 1989 which showed that only 38% had found new jobs. DML's Eain Williams defends this: "Wherever possible we've tried to achieve our redundancy target through voluntary means, natural wastage and early retirement. The combination of this and the considerable amount of money paid under the redundancy scheme has in some cases actually significantly reduced the pressure on people to find fresh employment."

Another disincentive is the lack of work requiring comparable skills. For the dockyard is not just a source of jobs but of skills, and Bishop argues that these tend to be lost in subsequent employment. Only half of those classed as "skilled" at the yard were able to retain that classification in their new jobs. Even those becoming self-employed may represent an element of de-skilling. "A skilled craftsman at the yard becomes a self-employed painter and decorator, for example," says Bishop. "Although a job has in theory been 'saved', it's not at the same skill level."

But what of the impact of defence cuts on the rest of the city's economy? What of the people whose livelihoods indirectly depend on the defence sector? Interestingly, these number fewer than might be feared. Lumping both direct and indirect employment together, defence accounts for just under a third of the city's workforce. "The economic 'multiplier' effect of defence establishments is notoriously low," explains Bishop. "A lot of MoD procurement is done nationally through central tendering schemes, and defence equipment tends to be very specialised - not the sort of stuff that you can buy in from small jobbing shops on the local industrial estates. And although the jobs might be in Plymouth, the earnings are often spent well outside the city itself. People travel to work in the city from all over east Cornwall and south Devon."

It still leaves the city very exposed, although according to Alan Clark, panic is out of order. Forget the nightmare scenarios, he says; the name of the game is adjustment, not catastrophe. Paul Bishop, too, is quietly confident, pointing out that the city has already absorbed 6,000 job losses.

Down at the dockyard the 12.15 lunchtime hooter can be heard all over Plymouth. The betting is that it will continue to be heard for many years to come.

(Malcolm Wheatley is a freelance writer.)

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