On 11 January, Japanese car manufacturer Honda announced it was forced to make 800 people redundant at its Swindon plant less than a year after it took on 500 extra staff.
The job losses are a huge blow not just to the Honda workforce, but to the people of Swindon as a whole. With its large manufacturing and IT-based workforce, Swindon has felt the effects of the recession more than most towns. So is Swindon doomed? Or are there signs of a recovery on the horizon?
A brief history
Swindon's emergence into being an industrial hub didn't really occur until the mid-1850s. The population of the whole parish was only 1,580 in the 1820s, but the arrival of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Western Railway, which ran between London and Bristol, changed all that.
Swindon was chosen as a railway town because of its proximity to the canals, which were used to transport the coal needed to power the steam locomotives. The railway led to the creation of 'New Swindon', bringing 10,000 new residents over the following 50 years. The Great Western Railway Works in Swindon performed most of their manufacture, repair, and servicing operations, resulting in a massive industrial complex with 14,0000 employees.
In 1900, Queen Victoria signed the charter granting Swindon Municipal Borough status, amalgamating Old and New Swindon into one town with a population of 45,000.
The pooling of authorities budgets resulted in further jobs being created. Then in the 1930s, the UK saw a boom in motor cars ownership, but Swindon was a bombing target during the Second World War and the local economy stalled.
Swindon's railway station
After the war, a baby boom and new residents moving in saw the population increase to more than 68,000. BMW opened its first plant soon after, marking the beginning of the swathe of car manufacturers who would follow.
Swindon's role as a major railway Locomotive manufacturer ended in 1962, with work changing to focus on repairs to existing carriages and engines and large portions of the site sold.
In 1967, the retailer WH Smith moved its book distribution centre to the town, the first of many companies who decided to do so in the late 1960s and 1970s.
When the M4 motorway opened in 1971, more companies moved in - the oil company Burmah Oil built their world HQ in Swindon along with Hambro Life Assurance, now owned by Zurich Financial Services.
Industries with major offices in Swindon now included financial services, engineering, pharmaceuticals and food distribution.
In the last 10 years however, hard times have fallen on Swindon. Some of the town's major employers – Honda, Siemens, Nationwide and Woolworths to name but a few, have cut jobs, closed offices or gone into administration since the start of the recession, while its population has increased by 10%.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show the employment rate of 16 to 64-year-olds dropped by almost 10% between 2006 and 2011 from 82.4% to 73.3%. Gross production in construction and Distribution; transport; accommodation and food fell between 2008 and 2010, while figures for production and business services remained flat.
Honda, and car manufacturing in general, has been severely hit by the recession
Among the job losses during this period were:
- Woolworths going into administration in 2008 – hundreds of jobs lost
- Catalent culling 275 jobs between 2009 and 2011, and another 40 being culled in November 2012
- Nationwide losing 400 staff in 2010
- Nokia Siemens making 150 redundant in August 2011
- 100 jobs going at Deloro Stellite in October 2011
- Biomet making 220 redundant in December 2011
- DHL losing 200 in July 2011
- Patheon culling 400 jobs in May 2012
- Menlo logistics culling 40 jobs in May 2012
- 800 being made redundant at Honda in January 2013
And these headlines don't account for all of the smaller employers who hit the wall during the recession.
Hope for 2013
However, it appears there is light at the end of the tunnel for Swindon.
Nicola York, director at the Swindon arm of recruitment firm Hays told the Huffington Post UK she was seeing more employers across the area recruiting for permanent staff than a year ago.
"The demand for teaching, finance and construction professionals has increased over the last 12 months. In particular major projects such as the Swindon and Wiltshire regeneration programme have created demand for construction workers including roles from labourers to site managers," she said.
"Newly qualified finance professionals are in particular demand in Swindon as finance organisations are looking to add to their teams. Supply teachers are also sought as schools in the area are always looking to increase their bank of teachers to work on a day-to-day basis to provide exception cover. We currently have nearly 50 live roles in education, 27 in finance and 17 in construction for the Swindon area."
While employers are starting to hire again, they are more concerned than ever before about making sure they get the right person for each role.
Many of the employers York spoke to are looking for people who can bring with them new ideas and contacts, as well as skills and experience, offering new opportunities for their business.
"While the current economic climate has created a larger pool of jobseekers for employers to choose from, the number of applicants for each vacancy has also increased, meaning effective selection processes are vital to running a cost and time effective recruiting process," she explained.
"We work with employers to improve their assessment processes, for example by developing techniques such as competency based interviewing, to give a more accurate view of how an individual will perform in a real life situation, and minimise the chances of employing the wrong person."
York’s findings represent those of Adzuna, a company which aggregates job sites' content from across the UK.
According to their data, the unemployment rate for Swindon jumped from 4.1% in 2008 to 7.8% in 2012, but vacancies are on the increase, up 13% from 974 job ads in Jan 2008 to 1,102 ads in Jan 2013.
IT, engineering, accountancy and finance jobs had the most availability. Competition for jobs in Swindon has risen by 3% in the past six months, reaching 3.57 jobseekers per vacancy.
Job vacancies are on the rise again
As well as hiring the right sort of people, it appears businesses are opting for more flexible ways of working, rather than spending money renting large physical offices.
Regus, the temporary office space specialists, has one of its 160 UK centres in Swindon's Windmill Hill Business Park and last week announced the opening of a new business hub in the Staples store in Greenbridge Retail Park.
Steve Purdy, UK managing Director at Regus, told the Huffington Post UK: "Certainly, businesses are facing a particularly challenging local economy, but we are seeing a positive and encouraging attitude amongst local firms. We have noticed companies in our centres taking all possible measures to cut costs and transform their business model rather than cut staff.
"More companies are looking to build business by adopting a more flexible approach to working. Research commissioned by Regus has found that over two-fifths (43%) of local firms allow their staff to work flexibly. This helps companies operate on a more slimmed-down business model and allows them to focus on channelling their capital more effectively."
And it doesn't stop there - Influence, a business group made up of companies operating in and around Swindon, has been set up to engage with those who make decisions that affect the private sector, and help bring about developments that will make the local economy more viable and vibrant for everyone.
The group is putting together a draft economic strategy for consideration by Swindon Borough Council’s cabinet which aims to shape the way Swindon looks, feels and performs until 2026 and beyond.
The strategy will identify investment priorities and infrastructure need, as well as identifying training and educational needs, housing and community requirements.
This trend for the community to work together and come up with a solution for revitalising towns is happening across the country and hopefully could put Swindon back on the path of prosperity soon.
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