Suffolk: Jobs boost as Willis unveils £10m investment

Some of the young people who have been hired by insurance broker Willis in Ipswich.

Some of the young people who have been hired by insurance broker Willis in Ipswich. - Credit: Archant

Global insurance broker Willis has given Suffolk, and in particular its young people, a double vote of confidence in the form of a recruitment drive and £10million refurbishment of its Ipswich offices.

The workforce at Willis in the town has grown by just over 200 in the past two years, from around 1,150 in 2011 to a current total of just over 1,350.

And with the company’s Greyfriars offices already having been brought back into use last year ? five years after being “mothballed” as a result of the economic situation ? the group is now embarking on a year-long project which will increase the capacity within its main Norman Foster-designed building across the road.

Mark Parker, managing director of Willis’ Global Service Centres, which includes the Ipswich operation, said the company’s headcount in the town was expected to continue growing by around 100 a year ? in addition to the 80 or so people Willis needs to recruit each year as a result of natural staff turnover.

He says the growth over the past two years is down to a combination of two factors.

With Willis being a global business, and London in particulare being a major international centre for the insurance industry, the group’s operation in the UK has been able to achieve real business growth despite the state the domestic UK economy.

This, he says, has accounted for around half of the increase in numbers in Ipswich. The other half is the result of a policy of considering whether roles falling vacant in London need to be filled in the capital or whether it would be more cost-effective to transfer them to Ipswich.

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The process of expanding capacity in Ipswich began in 2012 with the refurbishment of the Greyfriars offices, which in recent years had only been used for storing files and this provided desks for nearly 400 people.

Now, the group’s iconic black glass main building is to undergo its biggest makeover since it opened nearly 40 years ago, a move which will increase its capacity from just over 1,350 at present to nearly 1,500 ? taking total capacity across the group’s two sites in the town to just under 1,900.

Work on each storey of the main building, which was constructed between 1970 and 1975, is expected to take around three months, with staff being relocated in turn, so that the full refurbishment will take around 12 months to complete.

The Grade I listing of the main building in 1991 (it is one of only about a dozen in Ipswich to have such a designation, another being the Unitarian Meeting House next door) means that the planning and conservation authorities are being closely consulted.

The new carpets, for example, will be a similar shade of green to the existing ones although some minor changes to the building are likely for fire safety reasons and some improvements are also planned for the benefit of wheelchair users.

The other side of the coin when it comes to increasing the headcount is finding the right talent to fill the roles being created.

While Mr Parker shares many of the concerns expressed by other employers over the work-readiness of school-leavers, Willis has adopted a positive approach to the issue.

It has forged a network of education partnerships, which for the 2013-14 academic year covers 11 institutions around Suffolk, including Ipswich Academy, Ipswich School, Northgate High, St Albans, St Joseph’s, Suffolk One, Suffolk New College and University Campus Suffolk in Ipswich, plus Kesgrave High, Stowmarket High and King Edward VI in Bury St Edmunds.

The project, overseen by Gary Shoesmith as education liaison director, has seen Willis recruit around 50 young people from the local area over the past two years.

This includes 22 who have joined under a specific A-level recruitment programme which sees successful candidates start work immediately after the August Bank Holiday.

About 15 other young people qualified to A-level have also joined the company outside of the scheme, together with a similar number of graduates from University Campus Suffolk, including two with MBAs and 11 with BAs in business management.

The A-level recruitment programme will be repeated next year, with the process likely to begin in January.

Ipswich-born Mr Parker, who joined Willis in 1984 at the age of 19 after dropping out of university, having decided it was was not the right option for him, says he recognises that A-level students achieving straight A grades are still likely to go to university.

However, he suggests that for students achieving three C grades, where Willis sets the bar for its recruitment programme, employment could be better choice than higher education.

Taking into account the level of debt likely to be accrued in achieving a degree, and the extra three years’ salary resulting from starting work at 18, it is, he says, “a £100,000 decision”.

Senior managers at Willis are, he adds, impressed with the results so far, with one local recruit in Ipswich having already relocated to London and another to the group’s New York office while a third is currently on a placement in India.

Mr Parker took up his current role in Ipswich in 2011 following a four-year stint with Willis in India, before which he also worked at the group’s London office as well as in Ipswich where he started.

“I think the young people we have found in the last couple of years have been fantastic,” says Mr Parker.

He is confident that numbers in Ipswich, and the opportunities for young people in particular, will continue to grow for the next two years at least.

“We are not building capacity to 1,900 desks to leave them empty,” he adds.