Manufacturing jobs have collapsed over the decades this family have worked at Nyrstar — but new workforces have risen

© Provided by ABC Business Three generations of the Scurrah family have all worked for Nyrstar. (ABC News: Luke Bowden)

In times past, thousands of workers clocked in at the Nyrstar zinc smelter each day.

For those who live in Hobart’s northern suburbs, chances are they know someone who has worked there or at other manufacturers such as Cadbury.

Manufacturing has long been a huge part of the area’s economy and identity, putting food on tables for more than a century.

But today there are about 500 workers left at the smelter.

Glenn Scurrah retired two years ago after spending three decades working at the plant.

“I was introduced to the zinc works by my brother-in-law and he was actually introduced to the zinc works by his father-in-law … and my wife also had worked here after we got married in the mid-70s,” Glenn said.

As a child, Glenn’s neighbour also worked there.

“I always remember the man next door who was an electrician at the zinc works … I’d often see him come home, he’d be walking up the road with his Gladstone bag in his hand.”

Glenn’s role at Nyrstar is now carried out by his son, David.

“Before he retired I was given the opportunity to take on the role he had created, which was permit to work officer. I have a lot of pride in that, I’m proud of the fact that I’m able to follow him,” David said.

“Some of the older guys who have worked here for a long period of time, their families are all intertwined, it’s more like they’re brothers and their wives are sisters than they are work colleagues,” he added.

The Scurrah name was further etched into the zinc works’ story this year when Nicholas, David’s son and Glenn’s grandson, secured a mechanical engineering apprenticeship at the site.

“It’s kind of like getting a torch passed down to me,” Nicholas said.

“[At school] I was more inclined to becoming either a lawyer or a teacher … but then something just clicked in me one day and I became mechanically minded.”

While generations of the Scurrah family worked at the site, the Glenorchy local government area (LGA) it sits in underwent a transformation.

Shortly after Glenn started working at Nyrstar in 1990, the LGA had about 2,600 people working in the manufacturing sector, according to census figures.

By the time his son David started in 2003, that figure had dropped by a few hundred to about 2,200.

When David’s son Nicholas took up his apprenticeship this year, the number of manufacturing jobs in Hobart’s northern suburbs had collapsed compared to 1990 — the more than four-year-old 2016 census listed just 1,361 jobs remaining.

Figures from the recently completed 2021 census are set to be released next year.

The answer to why manufacturing jobs flowed away lies in automation and economics.

For more than a century, the zinc works’ bright lights and rising steam plumes have been as much a part of the River Derwent landscape as kunanyi/Mount Wellington.

It came to life as Tasmania’s hydro-electric schemes began flowing — offering a cheap option for the huge amounts of power needed to run the southern hemisphere’s first electrolytic zinc smelter.

“We originally had horses and carts moving materials around the site and we still have the stables here,” Nyrstar general manager Britt Butler said.

In the early days there was hard manual labour with a lot of dust and the fumes of sulphur to contend with, but the loyal workforce of thousands valued their permanent jobs.

As the decades progressed, falling zinc prices, the huge environmental impact of the plant and machine automation all influenced staff numbers.

“Over the years, Nyrstar has invested heavily in improving the environmental performance of the plant … and we’ve transitioned from quite manual jobs on site to more automation … which means it’s a safer operation now, there’s less manual handling and there’s less interacting directly with molten metal,” Ms Butler said.

Despite the smaller workforce, there is optimism the plant will be part of the landscape for a long time to come.

“Nyrstar Hobart has a long future here, we expect it to run for at least another hundred years,” Ms Butler said.

The changing face of work

As the northern suburbs population ages, health care and social assistance have become the new boom sector for employment.

The sector has grown from about 1,360 jobs in 1991 to nearly 3,000 jobs in 2016.

The once-dominant manufacturing industry now sits behind health care, retail and construction.

Long-term Glenorchy resident Naomi Hamilton, 92, wants to stay living in her own home for as long as she can.

At the moment that is made possible by her support worker, Motoko O’Keeffe, visiting nearly every day.

“I wake up in the morning, that’s the worst part of the day for me, getting up I feel sad and miserable, then suddenly I hear the front door open and I hear ‘Hi Naomi’, and everything changes then,” Ms Hamilton said.

“She helps me with my shower and getting dressed and the day is OK then and we plan what we are going to do, sometimes she has to hurry off and go and see another client but she comes back later.”

Mrs O’Keeffe has worked as an aged care support worker for Glenview for about 10 years, but the job has taken on a new significance in the past 12 months.

“My younger son passed away last year suddenly and I thought, ‘I can’t find a purpose for me to live,'” she said.

“Now I feel like I can’t do things for him but I can do things for someone else, and I really think this job is perfect for me.”

Help for the unemployed and those switching jobs

Finding staff for the growing number of jobs in health and social assistance is one focus of Glenorchy’s new Jobs Hub.

The area has the highest unemployment rate of any local government area in Tasmania, at 8.3 per cent and most of those seeking help from the hub are in their 20s and 30s.

“We help with everything that is required to get that person job ready, so whether that is resume writing, interview coaching or connecting them with the local employers,” Jobs Hub manager Cassie Athanasiou said.

Retail and construction are the other booming sectors with hundreds of millions of dollars in housing and infrastructure projects in the pipeline for the area.

Rosie Sivaraman has worked as a chef for two decades but after seeing many in her industry lose their jobs during the pandemic she decided she wanted a more secure, fresh start in construction.

“I like working with wood, I like working with my hands, I like using the tools, power tools. It’s an opportunity to be creative and be outdoors, which is a change,” Ms Sivaraman said.

Jobs coach Matt Coppleman worked for many years at Nyrstar and he’s passionate about making sure hub participants are properly trained.

“Some of the young guys coming through towards the end of my time there [at Nyrstar] I found myself being a job coach at work … It became more and more apparent there was no skilled labour in Tasmania … particularly in the Glenorchy environment,” Matt said.

“So for me it was just the natural progression to get to them before they got out on the worksite,” he added

Glenorchy Mayor Bec Thomas said as well as employment trends changing, the outlook of Glenorchy locals had also been transformed in recent years.

“I’ve been here all 37 and a half years of my life and we weren’t really much of an aspirational city when I was growing up but we’re really seeing a shift in how people relate to the area now and the pride of place,” Ms Thomas said.

“Once upon a time you might feel ashamed to say you live in Glenorchy but that’s really not the case anymore, it’s becoming a place where people want to live, work and invest and that’s something we’re really proud of.”

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