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The agony of U.S. automakers is familiar to people of a certain age in Britain. The British auto industry once employed many thousands of people before it lost its way. Now, some people point to Britain as an example of how to retool the auto industry.

NPR's Rob Gifford visited the English city of Coventry once known as the British Detroit.

ROB GIFFORD: In the 1970s, the huge Ryton car plant on the edge of Coventry employed some 30,000 workers. Nearly two thirds of the entire population of Coventry were employed in the auto industry.

But those jobs slowly disappeared as the industry declined. The British company that owned Ryton was sold to Chrysler, which then sold it to the French firm, Peugeot, which finally declared that Ryton was not cost-effective and closed the whole plant two years ago, moving the remaining 2,300 jobs to Slovakia.

Mr. IAN MCCALPINE (Former Auto Worker, Coventry, England): The plant's straight down into my garden.

GIFFORD: Standing in his yard, 46-year-old Ian McCalpine(ph) can almost see the plant or what's left of it, where he worked for 26 years and where he expected to end his working life.

Mr. MCCALPINE: It was a massive blow for me. Mostly everybody that was there was in the same sort of position. They'd just see their days out there to the end, retire, and that was it.

GIFFORD: But McCalpine and his colleagues needn't have worried so much. The company paid for him to go on a training course, and within months, he had a new job. Within a year of the plant closing, only 50 of the 2,300 workers were still unemployed.

In the 1970s and '80s, the British government had thrown money at the auto industry to try to keep it afloat. As time went on, though, it decided just to let some car firms fail or be taken over by foreign companies. Rolls Royce is now owned by a German company, Jaguar by an Indian firm, and MG Rover was bought by a Chinese one.

Mr. BRIAN WUDSKOWEN (Head, Job Retraining Organization, Coventry, England): I think Britain in the 1970s had many of the features of America today, and we have probably as a country been through this industrial transition, this industrial change earlier.

GIFFORD: Brian Wudskowen(ph) runs an organization that combines government and private money to help retrain the newly unemployed. Looking out of what used to be the Ryton car plant, he says the key is getting government and business to work together and to focus on reinventing the local economy.

Mr. WUDSKOWEN: Well, just in front of us is going to be a national distribution center for a mail-order company. And then over to the right will be manufacturing units, but manufacturing not cars, but things like mobile phones and technology-based industries.

GIFFORD: Wudskowen remembers very clearly the bad old days of the British auto industry, when all the same things were being said in its defense as are now being said in Detroit - that it was too important to fail, that too many jobs depended on it. He says, that is simply not realistic anymore.

Mr. WUDSKOWEN: There is no standing up to the forces of economic change. You can't sit there and pretend that it's not happening or somehow put a wall up and stop it happening. But there is a future in change, and the jobs that can be created for the future are often better quality jobs, more secure jobs, higher skilled jobs, higher wage jobs.

So I would be very optimistic if I were talking to the people of Detroit, which I've visited many times, and say, this will be a difficult transition, but be confident that there is a future.

GIFFORD: As well as helping former industrial areas reinvent themselves, the government-sponsored initiatives have also allowed the readjusted auto industry in Britain to thrive, says Professor David Bailey of the University of Birmingham Business School.

Dr. DAVID BAILEY (Director, Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham): The U.K. car industry is completely transformed from 30 years ago. Back in the early 1970s, it was a kind of byword for industrial relations strife, poor quality, unreliability.

It's completely different today. You've got some major international firms producing in the U.K. high-quality vehicles. Productivity is as good as anywhere in the world. It's much smaller, of course, but what's left of it is hugely efficient and produces cars that usually people want to buy.

GIFFORD: The credit crunch is certainly testing the new, leaner auto industry. Just last week, Nissan laid off nearly a quarter of the workers at its plant in the north of England. But ask anyone in the British auto industry what Detroit should do nowadays, and they'll tell you that it could do a lot worse than learn from the British experience.

Rob Gifford, NPR News in Coventry, central England.

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