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Our people make the difference

Materials World magazine
10 May 2019

Writ large above the rolling mills at the sprawling 13km2 integrated steelworks in Port Talbot, South Wales, is the legend, ‘Our People Make the Difference’. Tata Steel Europe Director Technical UK and Chair of the Iron and Steel Society, Martin Brunnock, explains why it couldn’t be more true.

While the UK steel industry may no longer provide the jobs-for-life that were once the case, with an average service length at 17 years and an average age of 42, it certainly provides sufficient interest, challenge and reward for people to want to stay. When speaking to workers, what you hear most is a sense of belonging – a sense of family, even. You find many people who have worked for 20 years in the same place, on the same rota with the same people.

Team mates are in work at the same time and off work at the same time – they live in the same community, share hobbies and even holidays. As with family, these people become fiercely protective of their company. Added to this, there is an undoubted loyalty to the industry, whether under the guise of Tata Steel, Corus before it, or even British Steel. That sense of loyalty has many antecedents. Many workers have had parents and grandparents working in the industry, and may have brothers, sisters, children or grandchildren working alongside them. So for many there is an in-built sense of responsibility of carrying on a legacy.

Heart of steel

Steel is an industry that still stirs public emotions, a sense that it in some way belongs to the people. Not that it should be re-nationalised, as it was in the 1970s and 1980s, but more that it is one of the last remaining industries on which the UK’s global reputation has been built.

Of course, no one is saying it’s easy working in the steel industry – it has always been tough, physically and emotionally. And the past 10 years have not strayed from this theme. The effects of the 2008 global economic crisis hit the industry hard. Huge financial losses and a long history of under-investment in UK assets led to significant reductions in manufacturing volumes and, inevitably, people.

Tata Group decided it could no longer afford to support the UK steel industry in its existing form and had to look for alternatives. To concentrate funds on a strip-focused supply chain and to give other parts of the company the chance of a better future, large parts of the organisation were sold – The Long Products division bought by Greybull and rebranded as British Steel, the Scottish Plate Mills and Speciality Steels passed on to Liberty Steel.

And then came the pensions - maybe one of the most emotionally charged issues I think I’ve experienced in all my years in this industry, more so than even redundancies, financial losses and plant closures. This was because pensions were going to impact 130,000 members of the scheme – current employees and those already retired and living in the same communities. This was people’s life savings we were talking about. All their hopes and dreams of their lives after work, and the future they were preparing for their children and grandchildren.

While this changed the relationship between the company and its workers, Tata Group has continually made efforts to improve and continue its provision of benefits and pensions, despite difficulties and corporate challenges.

The pensions issue, however, changed the dynamics of the steel workforce overnight. No longer do long-serving employees feel they have golden handcuffs – locked into a premium pension scheme they would only be able to access by remaining within the company.

No longer do people have to ask special permission to retire at 55 or 60. For those many people who decided to invest their pension privately, they can simply leave the company and access a portion of their transferred pension from their 55th birthday.

The risk to the company is great, and one that has become an urgent priority in the last couple of years. How do you replace 40 years of experience in a three-month notice period?

The answer doesn’t come easily or cheaply. Simply filling the pipeline with a succession of employees waiting to fill dead men’s shoes makes the organisation flabby, so investing in apprenticeships and graduate schemes has become even more critical to the sustainability of the organisation.

Investment in people

To combat this, there has been a real focus on growing the size of each year’s cohort, and the skills and enthusiasm of new starters joining the steel industry has to be seen to be believed.

We are fast-tracking people into roles and they are absolutely smashing it.

When I ask young people why they want to join the steel industry, they are genuinely excited about the prospect. They say things like, ‘I’m studying things that could have a real impact on industry in the future. I’m using my knowledge to solve real-world problems.’ And, ‘I get to do cool stuff, like making our greenhouse-gas-intensive industrial processes environmentally sustainable to protect and conserve our planet.’

There are many routes into the steel industry, and opportunities for people to develop their skills and knowledge throughout their careers include technical apprenticeships, internships, graduate, post-graduate and engineering doctorate schemes.

Apprenticeships and internships particularly have dramatically increased over recent years, with hundreds being employed within the sector in the UK each year.

It’s so difficult to know where life and opportunities will lead, especially so soon in people’s education and career, but there is a huge variety of roles in the industry, and a whole heap of challenges and fun to be had.

And people shouldn’t forget they have 50 years of working life ahead of them, possibly longer. You don’t have to do the same thing in all that time and there’s no rush to get started. Work out what you really enjoy doing and make that passion your career.

Modern steelmaking

So what does the modern-day UK steel industry feel like? Well, there is no denying it is still incredibly tough. Pressures of global trade seem to increase each year, environmental legislation, global sourcing, ever-rising energy costs and competitive materials and technologies mean you have to keep running just to stay still.

But it remains a capital-intensive industry that still has a fundamental role in all of the UK’s manufacturing supply chains, and is an anchor industry in government strategy.

Tata Steel remains a foundation employer, directly and indirectly, and plays an important role in many UK societies, providing good stable employment where people can develop and forge great careers.

Ours is a company that proudly leads the industry in terms of health and safety and one that continues to push technological boundaries to make more with less - to make thinner, stronger, more sustainable products while reducing steel’s impact on the environment.

Steel remains the most recycled material in the world, and with products such as photovoltaic coatings and steels for electric vehicles now being commercialised, there is a whole new world out there.

But maybe the point to remember is that it is not equipment, science or processes that has met all of these challenges but, steel workers – our people really do make the difference.