It’s midnight at the oasis – the manufacturing bright spot that is JLR Halewood. Last year the plant produced 184,000 Range Rover Evoques and Land Rover Discovery Sports.
Add production from the company’s other two manufacturing sites – Castle Bromwich and Solihull – and the combined figure of almost 490,000 was sufficient to make JLR the UK’s number one car producer in 2015.
I’m working on the night shift, taking a break between sticking Range Rover badges on Evoques to ask my fellow line workers what it’s like toiling away at Halewood when much of the country is asleep.
Not that you’d know it was midnight. For one thing, there are no windows in the walls of the vast production area, and for another, I haven’t seen anyone walking in circles, clutching a vital component and demanding a bedtime story.
All the same, there is, I imagine, something a little different about working the night shift, which runs from 2230 to 0630 Monday to Thursday – it finishes early Friday mornings – compared with lates (1430-2230) and earlies (0630-1430), which run from Monday to Friday.
For one thing, there’s the simple fact that while the rest of us are away with the fairies, 1000 Merseysiders are labouring amid a maze of overhead tracks conveying Evoques and Discovery Sports at various stages of completion, to emerge fully formed into the cold night air at the rate of one every 80 seconds (from coiled steel to finished vehicle takes 48 hours).
There’s also the fact that among those curled up in their beds are many of the managers who, by day, pace up and down the Halewood plant poking, prodding and fixing. “We’re virtually on our own at night,” one supervisor tells me, with not a little relish. “If there are any problems, we fix them.”
This, if I’m not being too fanciful, seems to breed a spirit of ‘we’re in this together’ – a feeling that if you make a slip or something plays up, your mates and supervisors will help. However, there’s another, more powerful factor at play, too: a sense that what’s happening here at Halewood between the hours of 2230 and 0630 is too good to throw away.
The Range Rover Evoque was launched in 2011. It was an immediate hit that took JLR completely by surprise. In 2012, with delivery times standing at nine months, the company decided to introduce round-the-clock production. The 1000 vacancies attracted 35,000 applicants.
John Witty, a team supervisor, tells me how the significance of that moment is not lost on any of his 1000 colleagues in the plant tonight.
“Like most people here, I’ve done all sorts of jobs in the past and I’ve known three-day weeks, too,” he says. “None of us want to go back to that. This plant is being utilised 100% of the time, which means we’re doing something right. If we keep doing it right, that means security for all of us – for people like me with a family and a mortgage, as much as for younger people just starting out who want to build a life and a career. Working nights is a massive deal.”
It isn’t just JLR employees who appreciate the night shift. During the course of a 24-hour working day, 6000 people will pass through the factory gates, including around 1800 contractors and suppliers. Some of those contractors, mainly DHL workers (the company is JLR’s logistics provider) are on the night shift, busily bringing components from the suppliers to the production line, just in time to be picked and fitted to the cars.
I arrive on the production line just as the previous shift – called the late shift – is ending. To ensure production isn’t delayed more than is necessary, most of the night shift crew have clocked on and taken over their so-called oppos’ responsibilities. This allows the departing late shift workers to clock off bang on 2230. By 2227 the queues of lates at the wall-mounted clocks are at least 15 deep. Most of the workers – called associates – are quiet, staring into space and winding down from eight hours of production line toil. As 2230 arrives, there’s a burst of activity as they swipe their ID cards over the machines and leave the plant. By 2231, Halewood belongs to the night shift, plus one rookie: me.
Tonight, I’ll be putting the hallowed Range Rover badges on the noses of Evoques, as they pass down the production line.
As long as I can stay awake. It’s 2230. I’m tired. I want my bed.
Doesn’t everyone feel like this? Apparently not. John Whiting, a 45-year-old associate who will keep an eye on me, is not only cheerily pressing on badges but also installing third-row seats in Discovery Sports.
“It takes until Wednesday night to get into the night shift rhythm,” he says. “Your sleep pattern on the Monday night is the worst. In winter you get home and go to sleep quite quickly, but in summer it’s much harder. Most mornings I sit up with my wife, have breakfast, grab a shower and then turn in. I’m up at 2pm and potter about until it’s time to go back in. You get used to it.”
At the next work station is 21-yearold Gemma Fitzgibbon. She’s deftly installing dashboards with the aid of a robot arm that selects the component (it’s bar-coded to ensure the right fascia goes into the right car; there are 400,000 component permutations to manage), slides it through the car’s door aperture and attaches it in seconds. She’s on top of things. How?
“It’s the last day of the night shift,” she says. “It takes the first couple of days to adjust. At the beginning, people are tired and quiet, but as the week goes on you get used to it, and because tonight we’ll finish at 0630, we’ll have a long weekend. Our next shift rota is lates, which starts at 1430 on Monday.”
The shift rota changes weekly and is known by the sequence in which the shifts fall as ‘Len’: lates, earlies, nights. All things considered, it doesn’t sound so bad: four days of nights followed by a bank holiday weekend, every three weeks.
As I offer up the name badge to my first Evoque of the night, I wonder what my chances are of being among the one in 35 fortunate enough to win a job at the Halewood production line the next time JLR launches a recruitment drive.
Fitting a Range Rover badge to the 500,000th Evoque
It helps that, with different models following one after the other along the production line, Land Rover Discovery Sports are clad in orange rubber protectors and Range Rover Evoques in grey. In your nocturnal absentmindedness, you don’t want to affix the wrong badge.
You take a large plastic frame with a cutaway for the selfadhesive Range Rover badge and, with the aid of alignment lugs, slide it onto the Evoque’s bonnet in line with the creases. Now the badge is exactly where it should be, so you carefully lower the frame until the badge makes contact with the bonnet and flick down the sucker pad to secure it tightly. The hard bit is ripping the backing off. You think it’s going to take the badge with it, but the glue holds firm.
A quality controller a few steps down the line gives my handiwork the thumbs up. And breathe…
How to prepare for the night shift and survive it
Night shifts run 2230 to 0630. It’s tough to begin with, but it gets easier as the week goes on, as long as you do the following:
- At home, wear earplugs when sleeping
- Fit heavy black-out blinds in your bedroom
- Eat properly and drink plenty during your two breaks
- Take Mondays easy and preserve your energy