By Meave Noonan, Researcher-in-Residence, Geelong Region LLEN
The Geelong Region LLEN (Local Learning and Employment Network) is one of 31 such networks across Victoria. LLEN’s were created back in 2001, to address the region-specific issues and barriers to young people remaining engaged in education and training, or making the transition from education/training into sustainable employment. Working with local education institutions, community organisations, employers, industry, unions and all levels of government, the Geelong Region LLEN regularly scans the local Geelong region environment to identify those issues impacting on employment and education attainment – sometimes stepping outside the bounds of our focus on ‘youth’ to work with other cohorts impacted by changes to the regional labour market.
Geelong is Victoria’s second city. In 2016, the population of the Geelong region, including the Bellarine Peninsula, Winchelsea and the Surf Coast, was 281,000. Like many other metropolitan and regional centres across the western world, it is undergoing a major transition. The local manufacturing industry, a bastion of stable employment for much of the twentieth century, is now a shadow of its former self. The patterns of transition, and the industries, places and nature of employment experienced by future generations of Geelong workers will be vastly different to those of previous generations. It has been suggested that developing Geelong’s potential as a centre for culture, knowledge and research, and services and tourism will facilitate its reimagining as a post-industrial city.
For much of the twentieth century, Geelong was a booming regional centre, boasting an array of industrial operations that included oil refining, aluminium smelting, car manufacturing and glass making, as well as a significant textile and clothing industry (Johnson 2009a, p.474).
Geelong’s textile industry was established in the 1920s and 1930s, and in the 1940s, production was booming across the city’s seven woollen mills in order to supply the war effort (Rice 2009, pp.27-31). Output was on a par with the centre of woollen and worsted cloth production in Bradford, Yorkshire (UK), earning Geelong the title of ‘Bradford of Australia’ (Rice 2009, p.ix). Roughly 30 percent of Geelong workers were employed in manufacturing in 1933 (Australian Bureau of Statistics 1933), rising to 43 percent in 1947, and peaking at 46 percent in the mid-1950s (ABS 1947; ABS 1954), before a period of significant and sustained decline that continues to the present day (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Employment in manufacturing in Geelong 1911-2011, expressed as a percentage of the total workforce. Source: ABS Census. Data for 1911 are for county of Grant, Victoria.
The mid-20th century was a period of peak optimism for Geelong’s manufacturing sector. At this time it was thought that employees of companies such as International Harvester and the Ford Motor Company could be assured of a ‘job for life’. International Harvester, a manufacturer of agricultural machinery, opened its Geelong plant in 1939, and went on to employ over 2500 people by 1966, out of a total of 4500 Australia-wide (Medson 1988, p.10). In addition, the company engaged many local businesses in the manufacture of parts to its requirements. A combination of factors, including a saturated market and cheaper imports, forced the company into receivership in late 1982, with the workforce having dwindled to 600 loyal employees at the time of the plant’s closure (Medson 1988, pp.14-16).
In the 1980s, while the Ford automotive factory was the leading employer in a local economy still heavily reliant on manufacturing (Wynd 1990, p.703), Geelong began the process of re-inventing itself, planning for a future in which it would be less economically-dependent on heavy industries (Johnson 2012, p.6). However, the 1990s opened inauspiciously: the locally-based Pyramid Building Society collapsed with debts of $2 billion, leaving thousands of depositors and shareholders out of pocket (Mills & Cannon 2015, p.4). Having once boasted that ‘Driving a Ford drives Geelong’, the Ford Motor Company began its long wind down, as new technologies and international rationalisation signalled the end of car manufacturing in the region (Johnson 2012, p.6).
More recently, during 2012-2015, Geelong has been harder hit by more job losses: aluminium production at Alcoa’s Point Henry smelter was stopped at the end of 2014, leaving more than 800 workers out of a job; Ford announced that it would close its Geelong and Broadmeadows plants by 2016; three hundred jobs were cut at Avalon airport with the closure of Qantas’ maintenance facility; Boral Cement shed 100 jobs in 2013 (Paul 2014). And in April 2016, retailer Target announced its decision to relocate its headquarters to Melbourne, spelling an uncertain future for 900 employees, and the end of Target’s 90-year association with Geelong (Tyler 2016).
Against this recent history of de-industrialisation and job losses, much of the projected economic and employment growth in the region is clustered around the three sectors of knowledge, healthcare and services (G21 Geelong Region Alliance 2013, p.30). Figure 2 below illustrates the dynamics of growth and contraction across the ten main sectors of employment in the Regional Geelong Area (RGA) from 2006 to 2011.
Figure 2: Number of employees in ten main sectors in the RGA (includes City of Greater Geelong, Borough of Queenscliffe, Surf Coast Shire and the Golden Plains Shire), 2006 and 2011. Source: ABS Census of Population and Housing 2006 and 2011, cited in Fairbrother et al 2013, p.80.
This image of Geelong as a future knowledge-based economy was boosted with the recent relocation of several government agencies to Geelong, including the Transport Accident Commission (TAC), WorkSafe and the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) (Lyons 2015, p.2). However, while the growth of the knowledge, healthcare and services sectors brings new career opportunities, there are also significant challenges, relating to the accessibility of these opportunities for young people and others attempting to gain a foothold in the local labour market. For example, it has been suggested that the growth of the research/education sector and healthcare sector may not produce an associated rise in the availability of entry-level jobs (Fairbrother et al. 2013, pp.23-24).
As social geographer Louise Johnson argues, Geelong has ‘register[ed] on its urban and social fabric some of the more dramatic changes in the recent economic geography of the nation’, and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the former industrial powerhouses of Geelong’s northern suburbs (Johnson 2012, pp.6-7). From the 1950s through to the 1970s, the suburbs of Corio and Norlane were constructed to serve the Ford automotive plant, the Shell Oil Refinery and International Harvester (Johnson 2012, pp.6-7). Yet in 2011, the proportion of households earning less than $600 a week in the Norlane-North Shore statistical division was almost 40 percent (compared to an average of 23 percent for the city as a whole) (City of Greater Geelong 2011).
However, in contrast with this pessimistic picture of an industrial city in decline, there have been attempts to consider the directions in which Geelong’s economy might diversify and grow to provide
a viable post-industrial future. Geelong increasingly looks abroad to the examples set by other ‘rust belt’ cities - such as Newcastle, Detroit, and Pittsburgh, among others - which are rebuilding their economies by utilising culture, creativity and entrepreneurialism as sources of economic growth.
The city of Detroit ‘is perhaps the global exemplar of industrial decline’, contends Barnes (2015, p.iii). Its experience of economic hardship, which has been compounded by such factors as persistent racial and class division, and the bankruptcy of its municipal government, is arguably much more dramatic than anything observed in Australia (Barnes 2015, pp.iii-5). Nonetheless, the story of Detroit and its post-industrial rebuilding and reimagining is in many ways comparable to that of Victorian cities and regions in which car manufacturing is in decline, Barnes asserts. The move towards advanced manufacturing and a diversification of the regional economy to support entrepreneurship (Barnes 2015, pp.14-19) are two features that are particularly relevant to Geelong’s experience of economic restructuring.
Johnson observes that Geelong’s post-industrial reimagining was underway by the 1980s, when the city began looking to the arts, tourism and recreational industries for its future (Johnson 2009a, p.474). She suggests that Geelong has many of the hallmarks of a ‘Cultural Capital’, that is, ‘a city which has recently and consciously made the arts (and often related Cultural Industries) central to its society, economy, urban form and place identity’ (Johnson 2009b, p.6). Johnson’s interest is not so much with metropolises such as London, New York and Paris, which are readily identified as centres of culture, but in
Those cities which have been in decline; which have been industrial centres and are dealing with the agonies of spatial and economic restructuring by attempting to rebuild their economies and societies through the mobilisation of the arts. It is an ambitious and potentially progressive social and economic agenda which has and continues to offer a model to others. (Johnson 2009b, p.6)
In imagining Geelong as a world city, city leaders have sought to establish the region as a hub for cultural and heritage tourism. As Johnson highlights, in the late 1990s, this involved an unsuccessful campaign to secure a southern hemisphere Guggenheim museum for Geelong’s waterfront (Johnson 2009b, p.218). More recently, Geelong has joined a number of globalising cities that are attempting to position themselves as nodes in the emerging creative economy. Forging links with the emerging ‘maker movement’ (which is premised on the revival of small-scale craft industries and the rejection of mass production and consumption), celebrating and supporting entrepreneurialism, and urban renewal are some of the key features and goals of an arts- and culture-led program of economic recovery in former ‘rust belt’ areas (Renew Newcastle 2016; DIY transforming a dying city 2011; Bespoke 2015; Zappone 2011).
In attempting to understand and address the transition currently underway within industry and the regional labour market, the Geelong Region LLEN will host a series of events and forums throughout 2017-2018. These events will explore ways to respond to the emergent economy and changing labour market, beginning with an Expansive Learning Network (ELN) event, focusing on the gig economy in the G21 region. The event will be held at Deakin Cats Community Centre (at Simonds Stadium) on 16th August 2017, from 9am to 11am. For more information, contact the Geelong Region LLEN on (03) 5229 0922 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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