British ceramics: A casting call for the potters of tomorrow

Posted on 26 Feb 2019 by Jonny Williamson

For decades, ceramics - like much of manufacturing – has faced an uphill struggle to recruit new people, but businesses are determined not to let that impact the booming international popularity for British-made wares.

Johnson Tiles and Steelite International are two British ceramics producers fired up over the skills shortage.

British Ceramics - image courtesy of Steelite InternationalThe UK is home to hundreds of ceramics manufacturers, collectively employing more than 22,000 people. Despite being around for more than 12 millennia, the sector is thriving, and the UK in particular is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance.

In real terms, the sector’s economic contribution has increased by some 44% over the past decade.

Through continuous technological, scientific and material advances, the ceramics industry is making a significant impact on our everyday lives – from tiles and bricks, to computers, sports cars and even space shuttles.

Yet, the sector can grow to contribute far more to the economy than the current £825m annually.

Key to this progress, however, will be how industry and government collectively addresses the most significant business-critical issue British ceramics manufacturers face: people and skills.

I recently took a trip to Stoke-on-Trent, widely regarded as the world’s heartland of ceramic production, to hear how two local manufacturers were tackling the perennial issue head-on. For context, Stoke-on-Trent is home to around 350 ceramics-based businesses which employ around 7,000 people (around 5% of the local workforce).

Steelite International is a world-leading manufacturer and supplier of award-winning tabletop pieces for the global hospitality industry. From hotel chains and cruise ships, high street outlets to Michelin-starred restaurants, the business prides itself on being an innovator, not an imitator.

Johnson Tiles has been manufacturing since 1901 and produces 3 million tiles a week. The factory spans 25 acres and is highly automated. For the most part, nobody touches a tile during the entire production process; the first and last person to touch one of Johnson’s tiles is the person affixing it to the wall.

Read my other feature – Stoke-on-Trent: From ‘pits and pots’ – to discover how Steelite International and Johnson Tiles are combining cutting-edge technology with manufacturing excellence to successfully keep pace with rising demand.

Gone fishing

British Ceramics - image courtesy of Steelite InternationalStoke-on-Trent is ideally located at the centre of the UK transport network, linking junctions 15 and 16 of the M6, and has no less than four airports – not to mention Liverpool’s ‘Atlantic Gateway’ – within 60 minutes, offering easy-access to global markets.

The region has, quite understandably, become something of a ‘Mecca’ for warehousing and distribution companies, attracting dozens over the past few years.

The Stoke-on-Trent & Staffordshire Ceramic Valley Enterprise Zone (EZ), which has been steadily rejuvenating 140 hectares of largely brownfield land since being approved in 2015, is only strengthening the region’s appeal.

But local manufacturers appear to be paying a price.

“Recruitment in this area is extremely difficult at all levels and for all roles, but especially on the engineering side and for senior positions. There just isn’t the skills base,” explains Stephen Dixon, managing director of Johnson Tiles.

“The area has attracted a lot of new businesses of late, largely warehousing, and there is still a lot of indigenous manufacturing taking place, both of which require sizeable workforces. That means it can be difficult to find and retain people, particularly in the short-term.”

Louise Griffin, group HR director at Steelite International, agrees, “The skills shortage, recruitment issues, an aging workforce, these are massive challenges for the ceramics industry and we are all competing for the same people in an incredibly shrunken talent pool.”

“At the same time, more and more businesses are choosing to base themselves in the region, and the UK as a whole has a record number of people in employment currently, both of which are fantastic, but equally it means my labour pool has become even tighter.”

Buying British and growing exports

British Ceremics Confederation (BCC)There are many large and small British ceramics manufacturers, collectively employing 22,000 people. The sector is thriving, and Britain in particular is experiencing a renaissance; but this sector has the opportunity to grow and contribute far more to the economy in future.

Key to this will be progress on business-critical issues such as reducing energy costs, maintaining trade remedies and ensuring minerals security. The British Ceramic Confederation represents member views at the highest level of influence, an approach that continues with its upcoming Brexit Ceramic Summit.

The free afternoon event takes place in Stoke-on-Trent on March 29 and includes speeches from representatives of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, and the Department for International Trade.

Click here for more information

A vessel for knowledge

Despite apprenticeships being described as ‘the best career path in the world’, it looks like the almost constant meddling by government, alongside poor careers advice at school, is detrimentally affecting take-up.

That’s a problem because manufacturers are increasingly prioritising apprentices over graduates. The number of UK companies planning to recruit apprentices is up 8% since 2014, whereas graduate recruitment intentions have fallen by 32% (as per EEF/Make UK data).

Johnson Tiles has a well-established apprenticeship programme, but it has certainly become a lot more difficult to attract people onto it, notes Dixon.

British Ceramics - image courtesy of Johnson Tiles“Young people with some appetite for working in the industrial ceramics sector are few and far between. I won’t say we don’t recruit them, because we do, but it’s certainly not as straightforward as perhaps you would expect.”

It’s a shame because the business has ramped up its already sizeable investment in staff training and development because in today’s world, employees have got to be “multi-skilled,” according to the MD.

“Well over half of our 300 employees are currently on some form of development scheme. The initial focus is getting people up to the skill level required for their particular job; we then focus on cross-training both in their own departments and others, which gives them a better understanding of what happens across the business.”

A similar programme is even more important to Steelite International, which is still largely producing wares by hand.

“To us, upskilling means that as our workforce gets older, leaves or retires, we’ve got people coming up through the company that can slot into positions where and when they open up,” explains Griffin. “Some of the skills we rely on take years to attain, so work-shadowing, flexible working and mentoring are essential in ensuring that transference of skill and knowledge takes place.”

Heavy duty

As you can imagine with any discussion of apprentices, it didn’t take long for the Apprenticeship Levy to rear its head.

As we at The Manufacturer have noted on numerous occasions, the intention behind the levy is worthwhile and sound, but the fact that it’s simply not working in its current form is inescapable.

From my conversations with dozens of levy-paying manufacturers, Johnson and Steelite included, there appears to be three major issues:

  • The amount employers can spend from the levy is too low and bears scant resemblance to the actual cost of properly training an apprentice,
  • Many employers aren’t spending the entirety of their levy funds quick enough and being penalised as a result – which also raises questions about where levy revenue ultimately ends up,
  • The choice available to businesses in terms of eligible training providers and courses is far too restrictive.

“Johnson does pay into the levy and fundamentally I do see it as a tax,” says Dixon. “The admin and bureaucracy associated with it are a complete and utter nightmare. The main issue, however, is that by default you’re looking for courses that you can fund through the levy, rather than those which are 100% right for your business and growth. That’s terrible.

British Ceramics - image courtesy of Johnson Tiles“It narrows your options and pushes you towards courses that are either fully or partly funded through the levy. They might only be 60% or 70% right, but rarely 100%. Sure, you’re making use of it, but I’m not convinced you’re getting the most out of it by any stretch.”

The levy hasn’t had such an impact on Steelite, according to Griffin, “Largely because it’s very prescriptive in terms of what you can and can’t do, and you can’t simply just tag an apprenticeship on that’s relevant for a business like ours.”

Passing the test

“For me, it’s about getting young people interested at an early age, not when they’re teenagers or thinking of leaving school. That’s too late,” says Griffin. It’s about re-educating people back into the industry and actually wanting to work in ceramics.”

“The challenge for us, this area and the national ceramic’s industry is fostering a stronger desire from people around wanting to work in this type of environment. The simple answer would be to offer much higher wages, but that would have a knock-on effect in terms of our price competitiveness against Chinese competitors, for example.”

“Around the country, clusters of local business and stakeholders have joined forces and worked together to establish training schools, predominately engineering focused. Every business puts in and all benefit from the skilled people coming out the other side.

“I’d very much like to see a dedicated ceramics schools of a similar ilk, but there is still a certain amount of suspicion when you have so many manufacturers that are effectively in the same market and are located very close together, such as in Stoke.”

Regards improving the Apprenticeship Levy, Dixon summed up his feelings in three words: clarity, breadth and flexibility – a wish-list I’m sure will resonate with businesses across the nation.