• For laid off auto workers, what does the future hold? (AAP / Supplied by Holden Pressroom)Source: AAP / Supplied by Holden Pressroom
What does the future hold for 40,000 workers who lost their jobs with the end of Australia’s car manufacturing industry?
Nicola Heath

29 Nov 2017 - 3:15 PM  UPDATED 8 Dec 2017 - 4:48 PM

Nick Doria worked at Ford’s Broadmeadows plant in Melbourne for 22 years, until it closed in October 2016. 

Doria, a trained diesel mechanic who appears in the second season of SBS documentary series Struggle Street, fitted the dashboard of the last Falcon to roll off the assembly line at the 91-year-old factory.

Jobless in a dying industry, Doria and his fellow workers faced an uncertain future. “There’s a lot [of people who] are going to struggle because they can't read or write or apply themselves on computers,” he tells reporters, in episode two of Struggle Street, tearfully brandishing a Ford flag as he left his former workplace. 

Almost 600 workers lost their jobs when Ford shut down its Broadmeadows factory. Twelve months later, this year in South Australia, another 1,400 workers lost their jobs when General Motors closed its Holden plant in Elizabeth in Adelaide’s northern suburbs.

There’s a lot that are going to struggle because they can't read or write or apply themselves on computers.

Another 1,500 to 2,000 jobs were lost from the supply chain that provided good and services to Holden, says Professor John Spoehr, Director of the Australian Industrial Tranformation Institute at Flinders University. “There are wider impacts that flow on through the economy as a whole as a consequence of the decline in people’s incomes and the overall reduction in investment in the South Australian economy by Holden.”

A 2014 Productivity Commission report found that the closure of the motor vehicle manufacturing plants would see 40,000 jobs lost across the country by the end of 2017.

So, what happens to the workers?

While Spoehr has been encouraged by the enormous goodwill the community has shown to the Holden workers, he notes that the automotive industry is located in areas that have higher unemployment rates than other parts of the state and often high levels of disadvantage and poverty. The Playford council area, home to Holden’s Elizabeth plant, recorded an unemployment rate of 14.15 per cent in March 2017 – far above the national rate, which was 5.5 per cent in September 2017. “There’s a high risk that the closure will reinforce that disadvantage unless we really focus support and attention on those communities over the long term. The real challenge begins now in ensuring the outcomes for the workers are the best possible outcomes – secure jobs preferably in the communities in which they live.” 

Nick was laid off from him job at Ford's Broadmeadows plant

One of the most difficult challenges facing former autoworkers is finding secure employment. “[They] are entering a very tight labour market for fulltime jobs because most of the growth has been in part-time and casual employment here in South Australia in recent years,” he says.

“We know from past closures that this has been a real challenge for mature-age male workers, many who struggle to secure employment and a large number who go on to become long term unemployed or under-employed. When Mitsubishi closed here in South Australia around about a third of the workers went into secure employment, a third went into part-time and casual employment and a third were unemployed.”

Some workers will find a new job in the manufacturing sector, which remains one of South Australia’s largest industries despite the automotive closures. “Manufacturing still comprises about 60,000 people here in South Australia,” says Spoehr.

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Governments can invest in infrastructure projects to help workers transition to new jobs. “It’s much easier to make the transition into construction jobs than it is into sectors that are very foreign to manufacturing,” he says.

Retraining employees is another option for workers who want to move to a new sector. As Spoehr notes in a piece published at The Conversation, employment growth in South Australia is largely concentrated in health, aged care and community services. “It’s not just frontline service delivery jobs that are growing in those sectors, it’s also maintenance, support, administration, organisational and other roles that people from the auto sector can very easily apply their skills,” he tells SBS.

A proportion of the automotive industry’s workforce won’t find another job. “Wherever you experience long term unemployment you see health and mental health impacts directly on the person who’s been retrenched, but also on their families as they struggle with paying household bills. The loss of work, which is so central to most of our lives, is a real psychological blow that can lead to increased stress and depression,” says Spoehr.

“Over time, if you remain long-term unemployed all those problems reinforce each other and you can experience very high levels of hardship and require a lot of support to work your way out of it. That is something that workers who lost their job at Mitsubishi are still having to contend with.”    

For Nick Doria at least, the future looks bright. Three months after Ford closed, he found a job at a car smash repair company. “Life just goes on,” he says. “You can't just sit back and mope.”

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If you or someone you know are in need of support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

All six episodes of Struggle Street series two are available to view on SBS On Demand

Struggle Street series two is produced by KEO Films with funding support from Screen Australia and Film Victoria.