Case study: Staff retention and staying power: Nissan builds on loyalty at Sunderland plantSome of carmaker’s earliest recruits are now among its most senior executives.Since the first Bluebird rolled off the production line in July 1986, the Nissan plant in Sunderland has grown from a £50m assembly operation into the UK’s biggest car production site.Now a £3.7bn investment employing 6,800 people, it is also north-east England’s biggest private sector employer, offering relatively good pay and secure work in an area with the UK’s highest regional unemployment.For these reasons, employees tend to stick around. Turnover of production staff is 3.66 per cent a year, against the UK average of 13.6 [per cent], according to the CIPD, the professional association for HR. And some of the earliest recruits, identifiable by their low employee number, are among the most senior executives.Keith Watson, a 55-year-old production supervisor on trim and chassis line 2, joined in 1985 as employee number 179. ‘In the early days we were building four cars a day’, he says. News that Nissan wanted more did not go down well. ‘We were panicking, saying we will never get six a day. Now it’s 2,000 a day’.As it has expanded, some of the biggest changes in the plant have focused on ergonomics and technology to reduce strain on workers and accelerate the pace of production.Each of the plant’s 300 supervisors, responsible for more than 4,000 production staff, is trained in ergonomic assessment.Innovations include seat shuttles, developed by the in-house kaizen, or continuous improvement team, to allow operators to sit and be transported as they work on cars on the line, rather than having to duck and twist.On the line where the Qashqai and electric Leaf are made, a height-adjustable skillet, resemblingthe middle section of an accordion, raises and lowers the vehicle to the height at which theoperator needs to work.Robotics has played a part too, with the body shop moving from high levels of manual weldingto 93 per cent automation. The new welding facility for the Infiniti, the luxury brand thatSunderland has just begun producing, is completely automated with 141 robots.However, work on the production line remains intense and tiring; stamina is vital. ‘It’s still ahard job’, says Mr Watson. ‘Some operators are so fluent it’s unbelievable; it’s like secondnature to them. They’re athletes in a way’.Mr Watson’s contemporaries in 1985 included team leader Trevor Mann (number 127), nowNissan’s chief performance officer and most senior European executive, based in Yokohama. MrMann says the early intake was a tightly knit team with a desire ‘to be as good as the Japanese’.Colin Lawther (number 120), a chemist who joined in 1985, is senior vice-president responsiblefor manufacturing, supply chain management and purchasing in Europe. ‘We came from a fairlydeprived area. We had this tremendous fighting spirit’, he says.Kevin Fitzpatrick, a paint shop supervisor back in 1985 (number 63), is the site’s most senioremployee as Nissan Motor Manufacturing’s UK vice-president. He says a culture of encouragingpeople to learn and try new things has helped keep him there. ‘In my previous company youronly chance to progress was if somebody retired’, he says.Of 4,305 production staff, more than a third are over 40 and late 50s is the site’s most commonretirement age. But this is not always the end of the story. Barry Loneragan (employee 102)joined as a team leader in 1985 and retired as technical services manager eight years ago. Now,aged 67, he returns regularly, employed by an outside agency, to do plant tours. So do two otherpensioners.Mr Loneragan is proud of what the early intake achieved. ‘We had to go out and prove ourselves.It was that togetherness; the will to succeed. The legacy lives on’, he says.Questions1. What are the benefits of Nissan’s approach to employee retention?2. What factors should other organizations, wanting to adopt a similar approach, need toconsider?3. What impact might Britain’s decision to leave the European Union have on employmentat Nissan?
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