On March 6, EEF will hold its first National Conference. The event is due to be chaired by business journalist, Declan Curry. Here he undertakes a Q&A to express his understanding of the UK manufacturing sector today.
What do you think are the biggest challenges now facing UK manufacturing?
Every sector of the economy faces common challenges – the struggle to find affordable financing, the constant need to innovate, the importance of responding flexibly to customers’ evolving needs.
And like every sector, manufacturing faces a never-ending battle to secure the best people and develop their skills. Most manufacturers are great at this but a few companies – too many – rely on others to train and develop our talented men and women. They should pull their weight.
We produce high-value products the rest of the world queues up to buy – Lord Digby Jones gives some great examples in his recent book [Fixing Britain].
We make the wings, flight controls and engines for Airbus planes. The British car industry may not be British-owned, but some of the world’s most productive car plants are right here in the UK, exporting strongly to customers all round the globe.
We invent and manufacture world-leading drugs and pharmaceuticals – with firms like GlaxoSmithKline making them in bulk, and countless other smaller firms at the cutting edge of biotechnology research.
We are world beaters in designing and making the equipment that’s used to find new sources of oil and gas, and for extracting these resources from increasingly-difficult locations.
Fuelling the world, keeping it mobile, keeping it connected and curing its ills. These are Britain’s strengths – not a bad contribution.
It is often claimed that manufacturing has a poor image, making it difficult to attract young talent. How would you suggest the industry can change this?
By shouting more about its success. By stressing its continuing economic importance and by telling young people and their teachers that manufacturing – in smart, high-tech companies that constantly innovate and research and add value – can offer you a well-paid, fulfilling and challenging career for the long term.
Britain is still a high-tech workshop for the rest of the world. It still underpins the national wealth. Yet some think manufacturing is dying.
Do you think manufacturing receives a fair commentary in the press? Or is there too much focus on ‘bad news’ stories?
This “it’s all the fault of the media” argument is just plain lazy. The economy isn’t weak because of Robert Peston’s accurate and perceptive reporting. The economy is weak because living standards have been falling for the last six years, people are afraid of losing their jobs and companies – many of them stuffed to the gills with cash – aren’t investing enough in developing new products or services, or hiring and training new workers.
As JFK said, we don’t set out these facts to fill ourselves with gloom; we do it to understand the scale of the challenges we face. Seismic changes are taking place – we’re restructuring our economy here at home, our European neighbours are dealing with the consequences of living beyond their means and then realising no-one wants to pay for it. These are unsettling times, and the response – by individuals and companies – has been to become more cautious in economic behaviour.
But the media should stay aware that, even in troubled times, British companies are winning new customers, securing new orders, developing new products and services and creating new jobs.
Austerity still brings opportunity, and there are successful companies out there taking advantage of it all the time.
As a journalist, what do you think makes a ‘good news’ story for the manufacturing sector, and for other business sectors?
When a company does something smart – with its products, with its processes, in its research and innovation – leading to better higher sales, more profits, new jobs. When a company can contribute more tax to pay for the teachers, nurses, police officers, prison workers, soldiers and all the other brilliant and committed public workers that we all rely on.
What would be the single biggest message you could give to manufacturers for 2012?
Keep getting smarter. Carry on leading the world.