FIVE years ago this week, the face of Limerick’s economy changed forever, when Dell announced it was to cut 1,900 jobs from its flagship European factory in Raheen.
On January 8, 2009, the company confirmed the decision – which had been feared for weeks – to shift manufacturing of laptop computers to the Polish city of Lodz.
Although the writing had been on the wall for some time, the news was greeted with dismay across Limerick.
Such was the reliance on Dell as an employer in the local economy, top businessman Denis Brosnan was appointed to head up a task force to advise on how the region could move forward. European funding was put in place to help some of the thousands of workers affected by the decision.
The impact of the closure of Dell’s largest global manufacturing facility – which employed 5,000 people at its peak – was felt far beyond the 1,900 losing their jobs.
At the time, it was estimated that around six in every 100 people in the region relied on the computer giant for an income, through sub-supply companies, and service industries.
In 2007, Dell - which opened its Limerick base in 1990 - paid €140m wages locally. From hotels to taxi firms to small cafes, no sector was safe from Dell’s footprint.
The effects of Dell’s decision to shed two-thirds of its work force was almost immediate: one of its suppliers Flextronics made 140 staff redundant in March, while another, RR Donnelley (also known as Banta Global Turnkey) reduced its staff by around 400 people in the weeks after the initial announcement.
Despite widespread media reports in the months leading up to the formal announcement, Dell’s press officers declined to comment on the issue, using a standardised line of “nothing has changed”.
But on a crisp, frosty January morning, the majority of Dell’s staff came in en-masse to hear the news they had all been dreading.
When a press release was finally issued, it read: “The manufacturing migration will be completed as a phased transition during 2009, and is among a series of steps Dell is taking to simplify operations, improve productivity, reduce costs and deliver even higher levels of customer satisfaction”.
The media were camped outside, as were a selection of local politicians to get worker’s reaction to the devastating news, with fears of the cost of living, the payment of mortgages, and whether some of the older members of staff will ever work again the chief concerns.
It was the worst possible time for mass unemployment, with the deepest recession in a generation in its early stages.
Deputy Willie O’Dea says Limerick has yet to recover.
“The new jobs are very welcome, but they cater for a small minority. A lot of the jobs which have been lost as a result of the fallout are the types of positions ordinary people I tend to meet and speak to every day would be qualified for,” he said.
Limerick Chamber chief executive Maria Kelly describes January 8, 2009, as “a day I will never forget”.
“I started talking to the media at 7.30 that morning, and I finished up at 1am the next day talking to someone from the east coast of the USA,” she recalls.
On the positive side, Dell remains one of Limerick’s largest and most important employers five years on, with 1,200 people employed in research and development.
Limerick has been forced to move up in the market, sourcing higher-value jobs, which have come in the shape of expansions at Northern Trust, Analog Devices, and Vistakon along with others.
Perhaps the clearest sign of this comes with the news that American biopharmaceutical firm Regeneron are moving to the city, employing 300 people in a variety of roles. The company will be based in the former Dell manufacturing plant.
Minister Jan O’Sullivan believes the company are here for the long term, saying: “Regeneron are making a large investment. They have specifically chosen Limerick, and have already put a great deal of thought into it. I would be absolutely confident they are here for the long haul.”
Ms Kelly says the job losses at Dell were inevitable.
“It was always a question of when this was going to happen. The Irish economy had moved on from those types of jobs, and it was quite remarkable they stayed in Limerick so long,” she added, saying this was a tribute to the local workforce.