Ford Bridgend closure: 'Journey into the unknown'

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A Ford Fiesta next to the road sign for Bridgend FordImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Ford has been synonymous with Bridgend for 40 years

Ford Bridgend is ending production after 40 years and 22 million engines in the south Wales town.

Before the closure announcement, there were 1,644 staff employed at the site, most of whom have opted for retraining.

More than 120 people will remain on site for a number of months to support the decommissioning.

The plant's closure was not wholly unexpected by industry watchers, but the loss of so many highly-skilled jobs is a particular blow for the area.

What happens now?

The latest figures from the Ford taskforce said most workers have undertaken retraining while 236 opted to retire or take severance and 362 have found new employment or started a business.

Until Friday's closure, 999 staff had continued to work at the plant.

As well as the staff staying on for decommissioning, more than 50 will continue to work for Ford and be redeployed to other sites.

The company has established a £1m community legacy fund, to which employee-nominated charities and community organisations can apply.

It has also established a £2m research and development fund to be targeted at small and medium-sized enterprises and academic projects, to be administered by Welsh Government.

Economy Minister Ken Skates said the government would do all it could to stimulate new investment in the area, with a particular focus on next generation technology.

Since it opened in 1980, Ford has received £116m in taxpayer funding for the Bridgend site, aimed at supporting and creating jobs, and it has paid back £15.5m in Welsh Government grants since the closure was announced.

In the past 10 years, it is estimated the plant has brought £3bn to the local economy.

What could the future hold for workers?

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"It's a bitter pill to swallow," says worker Jason Evans

For workers, the challenge is not just finding employment, but also getting a job that pays as well.

A father of two teenagers, Jason Evans, from Rhondda Cynon Taf, is facing "deja vu" as the factory closes its doors.

He has worked on the production line there since he was made redundant from Bosch in Miskin in 2010, but he thinks the current Covid-19 crisis will make finding a new job more difficult.

"It's quite a long period to digest the news but this week the reality has hit," Mr Evans said. "It's real and a bitter pill to swallow.

"Some who have been there 35 to 40 years will go off and hopefully enjoy their retirement but for the likes of me, who need to find employment, it's a difficult time.

"To stay in the industry, I'm never going to match the terms and conditions. It's a journey into the unknown."

Peter Hughes, the secretary for Unite Wales, said it was "desperately sad" to see the plant close.

"Ford Bridgend was able to hold its own against other Ford sites across the world throughout those four decades for one reason only - its world class workforce," he said.

"Nothing has changed in this respect in recent years. Every one of the workers who are finishing their time with Ford today retain their status as a world class manufacturing worker. What did and has changed is Ford's commitment to Wales and the UK.

"We will continue to support our members as they seek employment in new jobs and with new employers. They will always be part of the Unite family."

What about retraining?

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Bridgend College's Matt Williams said Ford workers were looking at a "mixed bag" of training options

Matt Williams, the executive director for work-based learning at Bridgend College, has been working with Ford over the past year to offer retraining to employees.

He said more than 150 courses had been booked by Ford employees for this academic year.

He said there was a "real mixed bag" of options people were looking at, including construction and "trade-type courses", plus training in engineering, electrical, mechanical and programming.

"But equally [they're looking at] some sectors that are quite far removed really from the manufacturing sector, like health and social care for example or... things like tree-felling or chainsaw courses."

Image source, Bridgend college
Image caption,
Ford employees have been retraining for a "mixed bag" of sectors, including construction

The college is also building a new Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics Academy, aimed at boosting the area's skills in these subjects, which are seen as important for high-value jobs.

While there is some optimism in the automotive sector about future developments, attracting future employers offering well-paid work is a collective challenge for the whole area.

What does the company say?

Since opening in 1980, the Bridgend plant has produced more than 22 million engines that have been shipped around the world.

In a message to staff on the final day, plant manager Wallace Yearwood thanked workers past and present for the site's "success and reputation" and praised the "Bridgend spirit" during the past year.

"While we have faced challenges during the last 15 months, we met these challenges collectively and with a desire to find solutions and to do the right thing," he said.

"Covid-19 impacted all of us, affecting our families, the community and our plant operation. Our Bridgend spirit meant we could implement the company's protocols and restart production from 18 May.

"We can be proud of all the work we have done with our local communities over the years; from the numerous Global Month of Caring projects, to the many charities we have supported.

"Our last community action will result in us distributing £1m to local causes, with every penny donated going to a worthy project identified by Bridgend employees."

Analysis from BBC Wales Economics Correspondent Sarah Dickins

How did it come to this? That a Welsh Government "anchor company" - which had massive investment from the taxpayer over four decades - came to leave?

The beginning of the end was in 2008 and Ford's "one Ford plan".

As early as the '80's Ford had a policy of plants across the world making similar parts or cars.

For Ford it could change production from one site to another. For the plants, it put them in direct competition with each other.

In the early '90's, the management and unions at Bridgend worked closely together to fight off competition from Ford in Germany to win the massive investment to make Zetec engines.

Many hundreds of thousands of those engines were made in Bridgend between 1992 and 2004.

But the real challenge came in 2002 when Ford stopped assembling cars in the UK.

After that, engines made in Bridgend that used many components from mainland Europe had to then travel to plants in Spain and Germany to be put into cars.

That made it harder to compete with other Ford plants.

The uncertainty of Brexit cannot have helped.

Winning the investment in 2015 to make the Dragon engine was good news for jobs at Bridgend but even then the number of engines it was planned to produce was only one third of what the factory had been making and alarm bells about the plant's long-term future started ringing then.

Then, a year later the investment and number of engines to be produced was halved to 125,000.

In such a competitive world, how would the factory justify so many employees?

Seasoned observers believed then that the company was planning to walk away and close the plant.

It took more than four years to attract Ford to Bridgend originally and it appears its departure has been long-planned too.