Finding opportunity in adversity best way ahead

The dishwasher floor at the Fisher & Paykel factory in Mosgiel in 2005. It closed in 2008. Photo by Craig Baxter.
The dishwasher floor at the Fisher & Paykel factory in Mosgiel in 2005. It closed in 2008. Photo by Craig Baxter.
When I was a student I was lucky enough to secure a factory job at Fisher & Paykel for several of my summer holidays. I never advanced much in my skill base and was permanently based at the dishwasher wiring station.

I was quite proud to tell anyone buying a dishwasher at that time that I might have wired it, in fact I suspect there are still a few of those dishwashers humming away in Dunedin homes as I write.

I have great memories of my times at Fisher & Paykel, mostly about the hard-working and often colourful people on the line and the fun and occasional romance which eventuated.

I also have distinct memories of the Christmas pub crawl, a pub crawl which put student pub crawls to shame. Ask me about my Mexican sombrero story - it's the only time I have ever been kicked out of a pub.

Like most Dunedin-ites, I felt very sad when the Mosgiel Fisher & Paykel factory closed. Dunedin lost a lot of jobs that day but we also lost a community. I often wonder how many families left the region and how many were re-absorbed into other jobs; do we even keep such statistics?

When the recent Cadbury announcement was made, I had that same sinking feeling. The 300-plus jobs which may be lost are probably the tip of the iceberg in terms of ramifications and I, like many other Dunedin people, are wondering what we can do.

Both these events highlight important changes to jobs in our community. I think the best commentary I have heard/read on the situation was a Radio New Zealand interview with Rod Oram.

He stated it was very hard for New Zealand companies to survive under multinational ownership, simply because of our distance from markets. He also described Mondelez, the owner of Cadbury, as an ''acquirer not an innovator'': their modus operandi being to acquire companies and squeeze costs to gain efficiencies.

This type of strategy can only last for so long and from what I read about global food companies, will end up causing those companies more problems than it has in the past.

Such companies end up in a ''middle ground'' of products, when consumers are tending to gravitate to the top end or the bottom end (unbranded home brands), in terms of quality and price.

Interestingly, Rod Oram also commented that Cadbury's innovation centre is centralised in Birmingham and such centralisation doesn't generally lead to real innovation.

There are many complex elements at play here, but looking at what we have left of Fisher & Paykel in Dunedin is insightful, with nearly 180 jobs associated with design and engineering still based here. This is perhaps indicative of where Dunedin jobs are heading: innovation, design of hardware, software, and food, and engineering.

However, I fear for what this type of event means for our less qualified workers. These people are as important in our community as our designers and engineers. They contribute to sports teams, schools, volunteer organisations and our social structure in general.

As the future of the workplace continues to change, so too are the opportunities. Education and training become key, and not just for the young.

Even as I write this, there are political debates going on regarding the retirement age. The reality is that a 50-year-old today could be working for another 20 years plus, so it's never too late to re-train.

I also need to emphasise, as I have before, a growing local economy is vital. Business in Dunedin may become more about tech and innovation than traditional manufacturing, but these businesses still will attract new people and if we do this well, subsequent population growth. This means jobs in infrastructure maintenance, schools, building, roadworks and so on.

I am still sad at the Cadbury news and I don't have all the answers, but I do know that ranting about corporate greed will get us nowhere. As Ben Franklin said, ''out of adversity comes opportunity'' and that is where we must focus, alongside pulling together as a community and supporting families through tough transitions.

-Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin-based agri-technology company.

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