The British paints and coatings industry has had a positive start to 2014 but Tom Bowtell, CEO of the British Coating Federation has concerns over key regulatory and skills related challenges which could stifle the industry’s competitiveness.
While the UK’s paints and coatings industry is still performing around 6% below its prerecession levels the close of 2013 saw a significant upswing for the sector. A member survey conducted by the British Coatings Federation (BCF) in December measured an overall confidence level of 68% compared to just 47% a year previous.
The injection of optimism comes on the back of an uptick in UK construction activity says Tom Bowtell, BCF’s CEO. “We saw volume growth of 7.5 per cent in the decorative paints industry in Q4 2013,” he states. This compared to 2.5% growth in industrial paints and coatings which are less immediately responsive to increased house building and increases in consumer confidence.
Mr Bowtell is keen to sell the success story of the sector he represents and to increase awareness of the importance of paints and coatings to other industry segments which seem to have won the affections of government rather more readily.
“While we’re encouraged that manufacturing has become fashionable again in politics we’d like to see a more tangible and intelligent commitment to the sector in government’s industrial strategy,” Bowtell explains. “There seems to be a lot of ‘picking winners’ going on and the importance of sectors which support the obvious success stories – like automotive and aerospace – is not being recognised as it should.”
Coating industry skills whitewash
When it comes to discussion of the competitiveness of British industry it never takes long for the subject of skills gaps to rear its ugly head.
Government has made a lot of noise about its work in recent years to address industry skills issues through the rehabilitation of vocational qualifications and the promotion of apprenticeships but Tom Bowtell – formerly CEO of Proskills, the sector skills council for process manufacturers – says that the pontificating is simply whitewash which has made little difference to the challenges faced by BCF members.
“Coatings manufacturers face some pressing skills shortages particularly at technician level,” he says. “There are no specialist courses anymore in UK universities for the kinds of chemical engineering vital to many of our members so we have set up the Coatings Training Institute to provide onsite and distance learning for graduates that need to top up their degrees.”
Continuing to address the general complexity of the skills landscape in the UK and difficulty employers have in navigating it to find the funding and people they need Bowtell says, “I’m afraid I don’t really not any progress in the simplification or rationalisation of the skills landscape.
“Government continues to devalue vocational training by constantly changing the names of the qualifications – if someone said tomorrow that degrees would no longer be called degrees the new qualification would not have the same respect . This kind of thing happens to vocational qualifications all the time.”
On apprenticeships, Bowtell applauds the growth in uptake but says that if you dig into the figures many apprenticeships starts are by 24 year olds and over. “It would be to see more young people [16-24 year olds] starting apprenticeships,” he comments.
The ex-sector skills council leader also confirms that he does support the intent behind the Employer Ownership of Skills initiative, which aims to put funding for the development and delivery of skills programmes into the hands of employers rather than training providers, but claims the scheme is not accessible to SMEs.
“The guidance note to companies looking to apply for EOS funding is 37 pages long,” exclaims Bowtell. “SMEs don’t have the resource to cope with that kind of bureaucracy!”
Bowtell sayss he is trying to investigate ways in which the BCF and trade associations in general can help SME members overcome these kinds of obstacles to benefitting from provision for closing skills gaps in the industrial landscape. “I just wish government would think about using us more,” he concludes.
Bowtell says the image of his member base is hampered somewhat the average company profile. “Our members tend to be quite small” he says, but collectively they pack a significant economic punch.
“We’ve calculated that £150bn of UK GDP is reliant on the coatings sector,” Bowtell continues. “That’s 17 per cent of the economy.”
This big contribution takes into account the importance of British coatings used on products from jet engines to food and drink packaging – a BCF video titled ‘A world without coatings’, which can be accessed on the trade association’s website, gives a bigger picture of just how critical coatings are to the way we live and work.
Of course in terms of international competition, the British coating industry is not what it once was in terms of ownership of market share, you won’t be surprised to learn that the biggest coatings market is now China. But the UK’s expertise in developing specialist coatings for niche applications and its leadership in developing sustainable paints with desirable high value brand names, mean that British products are still in high demand around the world.
“The UK coatings sector is a net exporter,” relates Bowtell. “In 2012 it sent around £650m worth of products overseas.
“Three out of five of our members are exporters,” he continues. “And many of them export to thirty or forty countries.”
With all this evidence of economic contribution it therefore frustrates Bowtell that coatings manufacturers have been somewhat overlooked during the development of the UK’s industrial strategy and it infuriates him even further that insensitive regulation is actually threatening the long term competitiveness of the sector.
“We have reall concerns about the impact of REACH,” says Bowtell getting fired up for a tirade on the EU scheme for the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals.
“REACH is an incredibly expensive and complex regulation to comply with,” says Bowtell. “It is also damaging the competitiveness of European coatings manufacturers and risking the departure of certain industries from Europe because they cannot be sure of being able to use the chemicals that they want to here.”
As an example, Bowtell points to strontium chromate, a chemical used in the coating of aircraft engines to protect against corrosion.
“This chemical is at risk under REACH,” says Bowtell. “If it is banned it is very likely that engine manufacturers will go elsewhere for the completion of that part of the manufacturing process – potentially taking other processes with them too.”
Bowtell says Rolls-Royce, the UK’s iconic aerospace giant is deeply concerned about the future of strontium chromate. The chemical has an application for authorisation in progress, but even if this is granted it, the chemical will come back up for review in a few years time and the whole process will have to be gone through again.
“REACH aims to encourage manufacturers to invest in R&D for the developments of alternative coating or other product solutions so that potentially harmful substances are eliminated,” acknowledges Bowtell.
“This is a good intention but since other nations are not taking the same action it is too easy for companies that use certain chemicals will simply move production to regions where they can use those substances.”
Bowtell goes on to explain that BCF is campaigning for REACH to adopt an approach which includes an appreciation of risk management in the use of potentially harmful chemicals in coatings. “At the moment there is no appreciation of the measures firms are taking to manage risk – just an assessment of the ‘nastiness’ of a substance.”