Capitalise, don’t quibble

Posted on 23 Jun 2011 by The Manufacturer

If you want something doing, do it yourself. Anonymous industry commentator rattles the manufacturers’ cage.

I hear every day engineers and manufacturers bemoaning the fact that their industry is not respected, that skills are not responsive to employer needs, that access to finance is not open and that government does not consult industry on policy formation.

Recent experiences and observations have shown me two truths in relation to this.

Firstly, that this view wilfully ignores much positive work. And secondly, that a large quantity of the blame for the failings which do exist lie with the engineering and manufacturing fraternity itself.

On my first point, let me list a few examples which disprove so many of the negative preconceptions I mentioned at the start of this comment.

If engineering is not respected, why is it that companies like Rolls-Royce, Jaguar Land Rover, BAE Systems, Airbus and Sellafield constantly struggle with massive over subscription to their apprenticeship programmes? Furthermore, why is it that four out of eight letters written to The Times today were on the subject of the centrality of engineering and manufacturing to economic recovery?

If skills are not responsive to the needs of employers why has Hinkley College in Warwickshire just invested £1.5m in the establishment of a new engineering building specialising in the engineering design skills sorely needed within the region. This project was initiated on the back of diligent research into local and national labour market needs.

Furthermore, we are about to see massive investment in Technology Innovation Centres and University Technical Colleges specifically designed (along the lines of the adulated German model) to bridge gaps between education and economic activity.

Access to finance is not open we say. Yet RBS made a fund of £1bn available to manufacturers last year which was largely shunned by companies unwilling to go through the necessary administrative processes. Nor is RBS alone in this experience. In a recent encounter with a representative from Barclays I was told of very real concerns in the banking community that, despite efforts to lend, financial institutions are foreseeing widespread fines for failing to meet government lending targets.

As my acquaintance pointed out – “There is no harder to place to hit a banker than his pocket”. The banks are under pressure and there is no doubt that they are trying hard to shift their lending packets.

On consultation; I recently read an account wherein a manufacturing leader (still actively working in industry) spoke nonchalantly of receiving a call directly from Vince Cable, seeking his advice.

Another conversation with a senior representative of one of the UKs leading tyre manufacturers revealed that relations with BIS are very good for the company. Scottish government was admittedly referred to as superior in its approachability but nonetheless the overall impression of Britain’s Department for Business was positive.

Undoubtedly however, all is not rose coloured. There is considerable room for improvement.

But where does responsibility lie in making that improvement. Who stands to benefit from a stronger manufacturing sector? Yes, of course government and society do, but, overwhelmingly, it is manufacturers themselves who will get to have their cake and eat it.

So what are manufacturers doing as a community to address the problems they are so ready to identify?

Gaining higher levels of respect for engineering as a profession and making it a (I hate to use the word) ‘sexy’ career destination, requires one thing above all. A strong public image which appeals to the ambitions of today’s youth.

Sir Alan Sugar recently denigrated engineering talent in front of an audience of millions, an act which provoked a couple of grumbling letters to broadsheet papers and the circulation – within industry circles – of statements which highlighted the ignorance of his criticism. The fact that a man with such influence should undermine the engineering profession was labelled crass and irresponsible.

But these protestations have largely fallen on deaf ears since there is no engineer to rival Sir Alan in the public eye. Manufacturing has no celebrity and manufacturing leaders are not interested in taking on the role.

Their reasons are admirable, they are too dedicated to the running of their businesses, but if the issue of sector visibility to young people is really the blocker it is said to be then manufacturing leaders must take time to polish their image for generation ‘y’.

The same principles extend to the other subject already covered of skills and relationship with government.

Employers cannot hope to receive relevant skills and see curricula respond to their needs if they do not proactively engage with local schools, colleges and training providers.

Likewise manufacturers must not wait to be consulted by government but use every avenue available to voice their opinions and lobby for the right policies.

The issue of finance is admittedly more complicated since alternative means of funding may be more attractive and small firms do struggle to meet the requirements of investment business cases, particularly start-ups with little historical data.

On the other hand, it does seem that a trend of bank rubbishing has become second nature to most without much questioning of the real opportunities.

This is a riling contribution to The Manufacturer’s pages but one that is born simply out of the hope of spurring action after far too long a period of mithering and problem spotting.