Thoughts on Wylfa and the Local Economy - Visit to North Wales
Ask not what Wylfa and Trawsfynydd can do for you, but what skills can you bring to a sustainable Wales? This was the slogan that captured the attention of 1,400 workers whose jobs will disappear as the Magnox nuclear power stations close down.
Nearly 600 staff keep the Wylfa plant generating electricity for North Wales and beyond; but only 15 or so are nuclear physicists. The rest have important technical and managerial skills which can be usefully re-deployed elsewhere with a bit of training. Judy Craske, a no-nonsense former RAF officer has headed up a team of can-do individuals backed by £4 million, most of it from the European Social Fund, who have ensured that skills required to keep a nuclear plant running safely are not lost to the North Wales economy.
Since leaving the army, Paul Adair, has been responsible for estate management at Wylfa for the last 7 years. His recently acquired electrical qualifications will equip him to do electrical inspections, an essential job in making sure that shoddy wiring does not convert homes into major fire hazards. His colleague Ricky Griffiths has completed offshore survival and safety courses which puts him in good stead for a job in one of the offshore wind and tidal engineering projects mushrooming along the North Wales coast.
Wyn Jones is leader of a team that handles nuclear waste. He’s applying the attention to detail required into developing a dog grooming and behaviour management business with his daughter, also a Wylfa employee. Boosted by several awards at Crufts, they are rapidly getting more enquiries than they can handle from the garage attached to their home. The courses they’ve done on running their own business and how to deal with demanding customers will help them avoid taking on more than they can chew – a well known hazard once a small business starts to expand.
Another budding small businessman, technician Tom Williams has completed a Level 2 Bike Mechanics course; he’s all set to capitalise on the growing market for bicycle maintenance from both residents and tourists on Anglesey.
For 16 years Cheryl Oldroyd has been the voice of Wylfa, the receptionist who is the first point of contact for callers. She has just completed the 2nd year of a degree in Management, building on the HR skills she acquired as the UNITE site rep dealing with staff disputes. Unlike most students, Cheryl’s tuition fees have been paid for by the European Social Fund. All those who have signed up for Shaping the Future have had their chosen training paid for up to £28,000.
The success of the Shaping the Future project run by Menter Môn has been to get those facing redundancy at Wylfa and Trawsfynydd to take charge of their destiny. They have had expert career advice, which examined their strengths and weaknesses. But then they have had to take charge of their own career plans, -applying for and completing courses themselves. That has prevented a glut of any particular skill determined by courses laid on for them.
For some, getting onto the right course for them has created considerable challenges. Claire Byast has found an absence of project management courses anywhere in North Wales. The nearest courses accredited by the Association of Project Management are in Liverpool, Manchester or Cardiff. Although she has successfully completed two modules through the Open University, she has had to sit the exams in Manchester, a hurdle that would have deterred most people without the European funding.
This is a challenge that the Coleg Menai needs to respond to if North Wales is to retain and grow such crucial skills for the future. Coleg Menai has recently joined forces with Bangor University’s Management Centre which should sharpen their ability to respond to the skills needed in the North Wales economy. Managing projects to be completed on time and within budget is definitely one of them.
It is also inexplicable there is a shortage of horticultural courses in North Wales – given the importance of agriculture. This did not deter Stuart Law, the Wylfa site director. Shaping the Future enabled him to do tree felling and pesticide controls courses to complement his burgeoning market garden business near Chester. But you would expect others on Anglesey, with its fertile soil and coastal climate, to have an interest in growing more of the greens we all need to stay healthy.
Overall Stuart Law reflects that the take up of Shaping the Future has been disappointing amongst the directly employed Wylfa staff compared with the employees of other companies on contract there. Some like Wyn Jones have been there nearly 30 years. But, unlike Wyn Jones, they have not seized the opportunities offered, in the possibly false hope that when Wylfa closes down its reactor at the end of this year, there will be several years’ work to be had from de-commissioning the plant. And that after that, they can seamlessly transfer to the new Wylfa which they hope will have emerged from the ashes by then. "Whilst that may be true for a few, the technical skills required for building and operating Wylfa B are quite different to the ones we currently have here," Stuart Law explained.
The most important learning from the project is that it takes time to re-train people facing redundancy. Ninety days is ambitious for most people to re-think their career and then acquire the skills to achieve their goals. Shaping the Future has been a 5 year project which ends in June. There is every indication that the £4 million investment, £2.3 million from the European Social Fund, is money well spent as it will have helped Wales retain the skills needed re-shape its economy. The ultimate success of Menter Môn’s work must be judged further down the line once we know who has what job where, and whether it has led to thriving new businesses.
Jenny Rathbone AM is Chair of the European Programme Monitoring Committee for Wales. She visited Wylfa in March 2015