Five thousand workers lost their jobs in the tragic, well-publicised closure of MG Rover’s Longbridge factory. Now, there is a scheme to retrain them that could also help ease the construction industry’s skills crisis. A brilliant solution – so why won’t more firms jump on the bandwagon?

Darren Harper was building 70 ft limos at MG Rover’s Longbridge factory when he heard the news: the company had collapsed. “It was a shock. They just told us to go home and wait for news,” he says. “We knew something was up, but not to that extent.”

It was 15 April, and the 39-year-old father of two was one of 5000 Rover workers told they were to lose their jobs. They are not the only victims of the crumbling car industry in the West Midlands: in the past year, 1150 people were made redundant when Jaguar closed its Coventry plant, 750 jobs were cut at the city’s Peugeot factory and 300 went at Solihull’s Land Rover factory.

Whereas car manufacturing is in decline, construction is booming. The revamped Bullring centre marks the start of ambitious plans for the Birmingham area and the government is making huge investments in schools, housing and hospitals. For example, Birmingham council is expected to spend £587m improving its housing stock over the next five years alone. But the West Midlands construction industry desperately needs more workers to build these projects.

One local contractor, Thomas Vale, has spotted an opportunity in the Rover collapse to fill this skills shortage. Last month the Kidderminster-based company took on 30 ex-Rover workers, including Harper, to train as electricians, plumbers and groundworkers.

Mick Chapman (left) and Darren Harper were laid off at Longbridge. Now they’re learning new skills and helping to plug construction’s labour gap

Mick Chapman (left) and Darren Harper were laid off at Longbridge. Now they’re learning new skills and helping to plug construction’s labour gap

Getting out of a rut

Nearly one-fifth of the construction industry’s workers are over 55, which in practical terms means that 341,000 people will retire in the next five to 10 years. It is a problem that Thomas Vale’s managing director, Tony Hyde, has been thinking about for some time: “What’s going to happen when these people move on and the expertise they have is gone? There just aren’t enough people coming through at the lower levels.”

The industry is particularly lacking middle-aged workers. This generation left the industry in search of more stable jobs during the 1990s recession, a loss that was compounded by 10 years in which many companies felt unable to invest in training. As a large proportion of former Rover workers are in their late 30s to mid-50s, they are well-placed to fill this void.

The problem was convincing them to sign up. Construction is considered a very physical industry, and so many of those 40-odds and 50-somethings did not think that they could cope with the physical rigours of the work, and believed they would be too old to retrain and had nothing to offer the industry.

After 15 years at Longbridge, Harper did not feel Rover had ever taught him enough useful skills or prepared him for job seeking. “Redundancy was all right for the first month because it was like a holiday,” he says. “After that it dawned on you what was happening and you’d get into a state when you didn’t want to get up in the morning. That was the hard bit. I can see how people on the dole get stuck in a rut.” With a wife and two sons to support, he needed to get out of that rut fast.

He expressed an interest in construction, and Job Centre staff told him about an open day for ex-Rover workers at Thomas Vale. Harper was one of 130 ex-Rover workers who were invited to the day; about 80 turned up.

I was very disappointed with the response to the MG Rover situation. It is a chance the industry didn’t take

Tony Hyde, managing director, Thomas Vale

Jayne Sloan, director of Thomas Vale’s training arm Forum Training, who set up the training scheme, says: “We described the industry to them, warts and all. We told them that it rains and it’s heavy work, so the men were under no illusions about what they’re coming into.

“But we showed the upsides too. We showed there’s good camaraderie in the industry and when you look at the impact building has on everything, there is a huge sense of achievement when you can say, ‘I built that’.”

It was also explained that manual handling regulations have torn down physical barriers, and older people have skills to offer that their younger counterparts do not. This is particularly true on work for housing associations, which are crying out for people who can do general maintenance work. Many mature workers are homeowners who have DIY experience and they come across as less threatening than young apprentices when visiting, say, young mothers or elderly women.

“They know they need to wipe their feet, be courteous, not abuse someone else’s facilities and provide a high standard of work,” says Sloan. “They know how they would expect work to be done in their own houses. They also have the discipline of going to work every day and tend to have better social skills.”

Harper liked what he heard. He was one of 40 who returned to apply for one of the 30 places available at Thomas Vale.

There would have been more applicants, but for the salary issue. Ex-Rover workers would have to take a wage cut, in some cases dropping from about £12 an hour at Longbridge to £6 as trainees. “Some Rover guys have been on outrageous salaries,” says Sloan. “But the workers we’ve taken on see they’ve got to take two steps backwards to take six forward.” She estimates that once they are fully trained, in one or two years, they can expect to earn £10-15 an hour over a 40-hour week.

How the scheme works

The scheme Thomas Vale set up was loosely based on a previous model it had used to attract women into construction. Under the year-long initiative, the 30 trainees spend the equivalent of four days a week getting site experience and one day training on site or in Thomas Vale’s training centre. It costs about £5000 per trainee and is financed by the European Social Fund.

To get on the programme the workers had to pass interviews and written tests. Harper succeeded and is now training to be a groundworker at Fitzgerald’s, Thomas Vale’s civil engineering sister company. He also found there was something that he could offer the company: the health and safety skills he learned at Rover. He has now signed up through the job centre for an evening class to get a qualification in health and safety, funded by the government’s Learning and Skills Council.

Harper says that compared with car-making, construction is a much more challenging industry from this perspective. “Rover was a boring job, but it was good on the health and safety side,” he says. “In building you have to have your wits about you. You’ve got to be aware of traffic if you’re working on the roads. You can’t fall asleep on the job.”

About 5000 MG Rover workers lost their jobs when the Longbridge plant closed in April. Another 2200 jobs were cut at other car factories across the West Midlands

About 5000 MG Rover workers lost their jobs when the Longbridge plant closed in April. Another 2200 jobs were cut at other car factories across the West Midlands

An opportunity missed

It’s not all good news. Thomas Vale mainly manages projects rather doing lots of work on the ground, so it needed to place the 30 workers with specialists to get on-the-job training. The company wrote to 300 employers but only 10 replied. Since then, only three have actually taken anyone on – and those are all Thomas Vale’s own subcontractors. Fitzgerald’s has taken on two as ground workers, and Electec Services and CHN Electrical & Plumbing have taken on seven electricians between them. That leaves 21 trainees unplaced, although the company is hopeful that by mid-October it will have 10 training as plumbers and set up at least 10 multiskills NVQs for those who want to work for housing associations.

The lack of response has frustrated Hyde. He admits: “I was very disappointed with the response from the rest of the construction industry to the MG Rover situation. There is a dire need for people and it is a chance the industry didn’t take.”

He is backed up by one of his site foremen, Bill Rowley, who has managed the ex-Rover workers on site and seen first-hand what they have to offer. He says simply: “Happy? We’re more than happy. We can’t say anything more than that.”

It seems that the ex-car-makers are happy too. John Mathews, for example, is a former Rover worker who thought he had a job for life and never considered that, at 44 years old, he would have to retrain. Mathews is another of the scheme’s success stories – he is now a trainee electrician at CHN Electrical & Plumbing, and has experience of car electrics that he can bring to the role.

He says: “It isn’t the ideal age to retrain, but I find myself far more interested and tuned in to the learning process than when I was 16. I’ve always been a bit of an amateur electrician so it’s good to get into a career I’ve always been interested in.”

Even with recent news that the Longbridge factory may be reopened, the workers are now committed to their new careers.

Harper says, when asked what he would do if offered his old job: “I wouldn’t go back. Even if it did open again, I can’t imagine there’d be much stability. And you have to move on.”

We wrote to 300 employers and only 10 got in touch with us. Out of those 10, only three have actually taken people on

Jayne Sloan, director, Forum Training

The Rover’s return

Some former Rover workers, such as 35-year-old Mick Chapman, were in the building industry before joining the car factory. Chapman spent 10 years at Rover, but before that he built motorway bridges and did roofing. He accepts that the industry has moved on, and now that he’s back, he has to start from scratch.

“Back then anyone could walk onto a site,” he says. “Now you can’t even go on site unless you’ve got this card and that card. It’s changed loads, but Thomas Vale is prepared to train us to get these cards so it’s good.”

Chapman is training to be a groundworker at Fitzgerald’s and says Thomas Vale has given him a new start.

“I can’t sit there, sulk and say that life’s dealt me such a blow because two years later I’d still be stuck on the dole saying somebody owes me a living.” he says. “Nobody owes you a living. You’ve got to keep going, haven’t you?”