If you have a LinkedIn account and you work in manufacturing, then you’ll probably be familiar with Andrea Wilson’s weekly minister for manufacturing posts (if you haven’t seen them by now then you haven’t been using LinkedIn right). The government might not have thrown its weight behind the campaign yet, but the industry certainly has, as The Manufacturer's Lanna Deamer discovers
Andrea Wilson is the Operations Director of Hone-All Precision, an SME engineering business based in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, and the voice of the Support UK Manufacturing initiative which began during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Campaign for a dedicated minister for manufacturing. As someone who has worked in the sector for over 25 years, Andrea has experienced first-hand the positives but also the negatives of the industry.
“Many SME engineering businesses in the UK are owner managed, unfortunately as a result of that we’re not very good at marketing ourselves. Historically we haven’t been the best at shouting about what we do, how good we are and what technology and expertise we have. I’ve also seen how the support mechanisms that the government have had in place over that period have not necessarily been in support of SMEs.
“As a result of industry meetings and roundtables I’ve attended, which feed into government policy – the people around the table tend to be a who’s who of high-level manufacturing and engineering therefore, they tend not to hear directly from the people who are working on the shop floor. Over the last 25 years, I’ve been trying to generate strategies for the nation, as well as trying to get the small business perspective on the support that’s required in a business that employs less than 100 people.”
Andrea explained that there have been some wins throughout the years, certainly in relation to the work that Make UK has been doing which feeds into policy. They were able to help bring in flexible furlough that allowed Hone-All Precision to continue training during the furlough periods of the pandemic. However, Andrea highlighted that the industry is still facing the same issues as it was 25 years ago, which is heightened by a lack of coherent long-term investment strategy by government.
Support UK Manufacturing
The Support UK Manufacturing initiative and the campaign for a minister started during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hone-All Precision remained open throughout the lockdowns however, like most businesses the company were quieter than usual. Andrea explained: “There were a number of us on LinkedIn chatting about the issues we were facing and there was around 25 of us who were in support of getting the SME voice heard.
“We started the initiative, and the campaign was one of our first requests. We were initially pushing for a Commissioner for Manufacturing because it would have been a long-term post and it’s non-political. However, one of our contacts within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), at the time, informed us that we had more chance of getting a minister than a commissioner, so we changed tack based on that feedback.
“We launched the petition to appoint a dedicated minister for manufacturing with the aim of acquiring 10,000 signatures and based on the support and conversations we’d had on LinkedIn this felt achievable.
“However, the response was quite appalling. This wasn’t because people didn’t believe in the cause, it came down to something much simpler… time. As the world started getting back to normal after the pandemic, a lot of the people who were initially involved in the campaign were very busy with their businesses and so as it stands currently, it’s just myself and a few others who still support and share the news about the campaign.”
Over the course of the campaign, Andrea and the Support UK Manufacturing team have had to adjust their goals. While initially focused on seeking a minister for manufacturing, Andrea is campaigning for a key figure within government who will speak on behalf of and support the sector.
In a recent letter to the Prime Minister, Andrea respectfully requested the appointment of a minister for manufacturing, or an alternative, senior government position such as a commissioner, or chief manufacturing officer, to support and represent the critical sector that is manufacturing. She urged that this must be someone with experience and knowledge of the industry and its wide-ranging sectors. From the support given by industry, it’s agreed that manufacturing needs a clear and cohesive long-term vision and strategy. Following that, a senior government official is needed to help deliver it.
This doesn’t feel like an unreasonable request considering government has appointed many other ministers for various sectors. UK manufacturing and engineering contributes significantly to the economy. Together, SMEs provide millions of jobs and contribute billions in output. According to new research commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering, more than 8.1 million people (over a quarter of all UK workers – 26%), are part of the country’s engineering economy.
On average, the annual economic output generated from an engineering job is estimated to be 23% higher than the average job in the UK. The UK has 729,000 engineering firms, equivalent to more than one in ten (13%) of all UK businesses. And industry contributes an estimated £645bn to the economy annually. Yet, manufacturing has no voice in government.
“Many of my manufacturing colleagues and myself have invited politicians on tours of our factories to give them a chance to learn more about what we do,” added Andrea. “There have been ministers put into positions in the past who support engineering and manufacturing which seems great on the surface. However, their remit is often so huge that realistically they don’t have time with their other responsibilities.
“We need somebody within government who recognises the massive contribution we make, is passionate about the sector and starts listening to the needs of the industry and SMEs. Everywhere you look, even the bigger companies in the sector are saying we need a long-term strategy for industry and yet we’re still not seeing it.
“Labour seems to now be pushing that way; they’ve generated and created their own strategy with support from Make UK. That’s looking hopeful, however it’s vital that smaller businesses also feed into this industrial council otherwise nothing is ever going to change.”
Support UK Manufacturing is dedicated to finding a fair and ambitious voice to represent industry in government, with the aim to deliver on four key areas (see boxout).
Productivity and growth:
- Any replacement or alternative for the Industrial Strategy must include and incorporate the needs of SME’s and be proportionate for the value SMEs add to the UK economy. An “All-Party Plan for Manufacturing” with a vision to the future is needed to break through political agendas and ministerial reshuffles.
- A review of ROI on existing support packages and expansion of investments made by Government and SMEs in productivity improvement projects such as Sharing in Growth (SiG) and ADS SC21 /SMMT NMCL Competitiveness & Growth Programmes.
- A shift of focus for future grant funding to improving productivity rather than just job creation or retention.
- More accessible help, fewer barriers, and encouragement for SMEs in exporting.
- Fund a national roll out of a primary level, educational scheme to introduce engineering and manufacturing to under 11’s and consider the re-introduction of craft and technical skills within secondary schools to continue technical education.
- Work alongside the National Manufacturing Skills Taskforce to expand upon and promote events such as the National Manufacturing Open Day & The Festival of British Engineering and Manufacturing to showcase how great UK manufacturing is. This content, along with the Enginuity Minecraft games, to be promoted in schools and colleges to address the need for more technically trained personnel and highlight the enormous opportunities available.
- Showcase UK SME business and role model diversity and inclusion to attract talent and celebrate and promote this through the Enginuity Skills Awards.
- A review of skills funding to enable businesses to conduct in-house training which is appropriate and applicable to the skills required rather than the “one size fits all” approach currently in place.
- Campaign for a T&D Tax Credit (Training & Development credit similar to R&D Tax Credit).
- Review the LEP’s, their ROI, engagement, and performance. Investigate why some perform so well and share the Best Practice with those who perform less well ensuring a national standard of excellence within business and economic support.
- Understanding and harnessing the power of the UK SME supply chain will dramatically contribute to the Levelling Up agenda. Currently representing 250m+ – a growth of 10% across these few would contribute 25m+ to the economy.
- A stronger voice for SMEs to feed into government discussions relating to new investment, training, support, and legislation particular to UK Manufacturing.
- A push for all OEMs to commit to a percentage of reshoring where possible with commitments within Defence procurement to source a minimum % from UK SMEs (e.g., BOXER UK had a requirement that 60% was to be sourced from UK SME’s).
- Help grow UK SME manufacturing beyond purely component supply to provide subassembly/assembly capabilities and compete on a global scale.
Net zero and sustainability:
- Create a net zero task force for manufacturing where a single point for advice, support, and funding, can be accessed by all.
- Increase the focus towards, and awareness of, our Local Supply Chains ensuring minimal environmental impact whilst maximising opportunities for growth within regions.
- SMEs to have a voice in the journey towards a sustainable net zero environment.
- Access to financing in support of changes made that contribute to emissions/carbon reduction programmes.
Throughout the campaign, Andrea and the team haven’t been invited to parliament to discuss their requests. The question to ask is why? Do the government think that manufacturing is doing well enough on their own and that they don’t need the support?
That’s not to say that the government haven’t provided funding and grants, however, Andrea explained that they aren’t structured correctly, particularly in reference to SMEs. She added: “For example, when applying for a capital grant for a new machine, I had to prove that I was going to employ two more people. If I’m improving technology and productivity, the machines should be doing the work.
“The job creation side of grant funding doesn’t line up with improving our productivity as a nation. You often hear how the UK is bottom of the league for productivity among our European neighbours, but a lot of grants and funding don’t help this situation. It’s a constant cycle of trying to make positive change, and can be a game of two steps forward, three steps back.”
Something that amazed me from my conversation with Andrea, was her determination to keep on going despite the lack of response from the government. From battling her own personal issues to experiencing campaign fatigue and a disappointing petition uptake, she hasn’t given up in her quest for positive change.
It’s evident how much she loves the industry and the people in it. She continued: “I’m so grateful to work in an incredibly exciting, innovative and importantly, diverse industry. I’ve witnessed tremendous change over the years and although we aren’t where we want to be, massive steps have been made as we now have many diverse prominent figures and more youngsters coming through. The Manufacturer Top 100 has brought that to the forefront!”
Quite frankly, UK manufacturing doesn’t get the recognition, support or structure it deserves. Many other countries around the world have a positive view towards manufacturing and engineering, and it’s seen as a major contributor to the economy. Perhaps this comes back to the age-old issue that we talk about time and time again; the perception of the industry is way off the mark. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from the US, where manufacturing ambassadors have been appointed across several key states.
I asked Andrea what her biggest achievement was so far and although she seemed to think they hadn’t quite achieved anything yet, I’d argue her case that while government are yet to respond, the initiative has raised awareness, united the manufacturing community and given SMEs a voice. As a result of the support the campaign has received on social media, more initiative and interest has been taken in what’s going on in local manufacturing areas.
While Andrea believes they’ve still got a long way to go, by continuing to raise the profile of manufacturing and engineering, we can all play a part in shouting about how amazing the UK sector is. Industry is surviving and thriving despite the lack of correct government support; just imagine what it could do if the government were listening to their voices.
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