During the financial crisis, it is arguable that British manufacturing became fashionable again.
As banks were bailed out and the financial services sector endured a torrid time, there seemed to be a reassessment of the part that manufacturing played in the economy. At the time, one could readily question the notion that graduates would automatically find the bright lights of the City more appealing than a shopfloor in the Midlands – one of the major drains of young talent from the manufacturing industry in the past.
This shift in thinking was tangible and welcome for a manufacturing sector too often neglected by policymakers. Peter Mandelson’s famous quote that what the country required was ‘less financial engineering, and more actual engineering’ turned out to be – for once – not just a soundbite, but borne out in policy by Labour and the subsequent coalition government, with the establishment of the Automotive Council, Hermann Hauser-inspired Catapult centres for innovation, and billions in support for the aerospace sector.
George Osborne progressed this theme as Chancellor with his ’march of the makers’ and vision for a Northern Powerhouse helping to drive the economy. Industrial intervention was suddenly on the radar of government again. And it seemed manufacturing could help the UK power forward post-financial crisis. The decision by Theresa May’s government to enshrine ‘industrial strategy’ in the title of the new business department in July 2016 was also good news for the sector – at the highest levels of government, there was recognition that such a strategy was now needed.
Now, post-Brexit vote, with economic forecasts gloomy, and the Government still wrestling with the protracted hangover from the financial crisis, not to mention the difficult process of exiting the EU, we might reasonably ask if perceptions of British manufacturing have actually improved at all in the last eight years. The launch of the new industrial strategy itself in late November gave the Government the chance to confirm that life sciences company MSD will open a new state-of-the-art UK hub, ‘helping ensure innovative research into future treatments for patients and pioneering medicines are completed in Britain’. Aligning with a high-tech, clean, highly skilled, high-value, and modern manufacturing business that will create 950 jobs in London by 2020 made a good poster child for the industrial strategy launch; and it’s precisely this type of business that could help to change perceptions of a career in manufacturing.
However, there is still plenty of work to be done to improve poor perceptions of manufacturing and engineering among young people, at a time when there are chronic skills shortages in the sector. The sector is facing a perfect storm where crucial skills could be lost if the knowledge is not transferred to the younger generation. For hard data to back-up just how important this job is, look no further than Engineering UK’s 2017 report on the state of engineering. It finds that 265,000 skilled industry entrants are required annually to 2024 to meet demand from engineering enterprises. As a conservative estimate, there is already a shortfall of at least 20,000 engineering graduates a year. Even if the manufacturing powerhouse were to roar post-Brexit, lack of skills could easily stymie growth.
In addition, the manufacturing industry currently relies heavily on workers from the EU, and recent findings from LinkedIn showed that more workers moved from the UK than arrived in the first quarter of the year – highlighting greater pressure on the sector to bridge the skills gap.
Initiatives, such as the Leeds Manufacturing Festival, will play an increasingly important role in appealing to young people. Through opening the doors of manufacturers, it will not only lift the lid on modern manufacturing, dispel any myths and showcase the strength of the UK’s manufacturing sector, but it is hoped that it will inspire more young people to consider a career in manufacturing.
To make manufacturing a more attractive industry to young people, manufacturers could do worse than to emphasise the ways in which it benefits wider society – beyond just the economics. A survey published by Engineering UK to mark Tomorrow’s Engineers week indicated that young people most desired jobs that made a difference socially, with 90 per cent of young people interested in careers that tackled social issues. Helping animals, saving lives and tackling homelessness were the dream careers for 9-18 year olds with 67 per cent saying they would consider an engineering career if it helped society.
If we are to present an image of manufacturing as modern and high-tech, we should also perhaps consider as never before showing how it is benefiting society – such as through the development of medicines and products to improve the health of people and animals across the world.
That’s the type of narrative that the younger generation – who will form the future of manufacturing – finds most compelling.