A horn could be heard throughout the city at the beginning of each shift at Belfast’s Harland & Wolff shipyard, where the Titanic was built. Last month, it rang again to signal a new beginning.
John Wood , the London-based chief executive of InfraStrata energy company, bought InfraStrata out of receivership three years ago for PS6mn. The chief executive discovered eight-foot-high weeds in his yard. He also recalls the amazement of his colleagues that Harland & Wolff was able to be revived from the dead.
Wood believes that a PS1.6bn contract for three support ships to the Royal Navy, in partnership with Spain’s state-owned Navantia, will bring new life to the yard. This region has been ranked as one of the least productive and one of the poorest in the UK.
“We have been given the opportunity to do so here. . . Wood stated that this relationship is not for just one program but for the future. Office overlooking the enormous yellow cranes Samson and Goliath that have dominated Belfast’s skyline for over a century.
The yard’s former status as a yard which built over 1,600 ships before it was demolished by cheaper competitors in Europe and Asia is reflected in its gantries. Since 2003, it has not built any ships. Wood is optimistic about the junior role that the Aim-listed company will play alongside its larger Spanish counterpart in the Team Resolute consortium.
Navantia will “supervise and hold our hand and make sure we do things right”, he stated. He said that having the company along “really de-risks this programme completely for us” due to rising energy and construction costs.
Wood described the contract as a key part of a “major transformation” that took place in December when the company disappointed investors by cutting its 2022 revenue target to between PS65mn & PS75mn. He blamed supply chain constraints and inflationary forces. He maintained that Harland & Wolff was still on track to meet its financial goals despite the warning.
The contract, according to Ben Wallace, UK defense minister, is a boost for an industry that has lost its orders over the past few decades due to failures in modernisation. It’s a little like “. . . On a visit to the Belfast shipyard, Wallace, Britain’s “shipbuilding tsar”, said that Honda and Nissan are coming to the UK to revolutionize British car manufacturing.
Wood stated that the navy contract would contain 60% UK content and will result in a fivefold increase of the 210-strong workforce and the creation of 900 new jobs. Team Resolute will spend PS77mn on four Harland & Wolff sites. Most of the funds will be used to modernise the shipyard in Belfast. Since the purchase of the Northern Ireland It has two yards in Scotland and one Devon.
The construction of the navy support vessels will begin in 2025 and be completed by 2032. Wallace anticipates that a PS4bn government program, which is designed to revive the UK’s shipbuilding industry and build 150 ships within the next three decades, will be completed by then. This programme will bring more work to Belfast.
Jeff Scott, a 60 year-old welder, said that he can see a bright future and has returned to Harland & Wolff. He heard the company was looking for experienced workers — affectionately called “greybeards” — before their skills disappear forever.
Scott was employed at the shipyard for 23-years, but he left 22 years ago. He said, “I hope people will be able to get their hands dirty once again.”
Robert Childs, an engineer at Harland & Wolff who worked there for 40 years, said that “from where we were, it’s important that the company is beginning to go in the correct direction again.” His great-grandfather, Robert Childs, sailed the Titanic from Southampton to deliver it to Southampton for its fateful 1912 voyage. Critics fear Harland & Wolff will struggle to meet deadlines. “We’re not naive; there’s a process of growth to go,” acknowledged Wood. “We need actually to build the credibility of UK shipbuilding back up again.”
Tom McCluskie was an ex-employee, company archivist, and author of The Rise and Fall of Harland and Wolff. He was critical of Team Resolute’s contract.
He stated that the yard, with two of Europe’s largest dry docks, would be building “kit ships.” . . Like giant Legos” made from Spanish sections. He worries that younger workers won’t be able to learn core skills in shipbuilding unless they are guaranteed future work.
Peter Renton is an analyst at London’s Cenkos, Harland & Wolff’s broker. He said that the contract would position it for future opportunities such as offshore wind farms. “I believe they have the ability to do it. . . It’s about rehabilitating these shipyards and putting the ships in a better spot.
Despite the collapse of traditional shipbuilding, Northern Ireland has attracted high tech investment. Creative industries have thrived. In fact, a studio where Game of Thrones was filmed is located on the former Harland & Wolff paint hall.
However, the UK has the highest rate of “economic inactivity” in the region. This affects more than 25% of the workforce. Meanwhile, the UK’s household disposable income is the lowest.
Anne Devlin, a think-tank at the Economic and Social Research Institute, stated that only around 11 percent of Northern Irish people get additional non-university training or qualifications. These qualifications are highly valued in Northern Ireland. This suggests that there is a demand. . . That is not being done.”
Wood sought to ensure the company’s future by diversifying into five markets, including defense, oil and gas, renewable energy and commercial ships. This will allow for continuity in work and prevent the industry from being plagued by the issue of staff having to be laid off when contracts end. “The reason shipyards end up dead is because they are too expensive. . . Because they are generally limited to one market.”