Manufacturing a better image

Posted on 7 Apr 2009 by The Manufacturer

How is manufacturing perceived as a career choice? Becky Done talks to members of the manufacturing industry to report on perceptions of a much maligned sector and reveals what needs to change to improve the image of manufacturing

It will probably come as no surprise that topping the list of The Sunday Times’ Best 100 Companies to work for this year was not a manufacturer (it was, in fact, a retailer). Dominating the rest of the list were firms from ‘desirable’ sectors such as IT, finance and law.

What makes one occupation or industry more desirable than another? What are students and graduates looking for when they make their first job applications – or earlier, when making decisions on what subjects they wish to pursue?

According to The Manufacturing Institute, while figures for university applications between autumn 2006 and 2007 showed substantial increases in certain science, engineering and technology courses, there was an 8.1% fall in applicants for production and manufacturing and engineering. Moreover, in a recent study, The Chemical Industries Association showed that 76% of respondents had difficulty in recruiting graduates.

Why does manufacturing struggle to attract the brightest and best young people? Well, it is widely accepted that the industry is suffering from both a skills crisis and an image problem – and one way to tackle this is to really understand what young people think about when they start making the decisions that will shape their career.

The power of featuring in The Sunday Times’s final lists (there are three – the Best 100 Companies; the 20 Best Big Companies and the Best 100 SMEs) is not to be underestimated. Today’s generation of youngsters, particularly university graduates, have high expectations of their workplaces — a mindset forged long before the recession and unlikely to be dented by it.

Some companies may feel they cannot compete with those finalists offering massive salaries and extensive benefits such as private healthcare. But in fact only one of eight assessment categories looks at pay and benefits — other equally important criteria include leadership, communication, teamwork and engagement.

This year, the list of Best 100 SMEs (small and medium sized enterprises) contained only two manufacturers, lonely crusaders among an army from ‘desirable’ professions such as public relations, IT and recruitment. Instarmac, a family-run manufacturer and distributor of cement, bitumen and resin based products, was one of them, reaching 78th position.

Sarah Rose, Instarmac’s marketing manager, is clearly excited by what the award will mean for the company: “The accolade will hopefully attract a lot more young people,” she says. “As far as manufacturing goes, [people] see it as a bit of a risky business. At the end of the day, in periods like we are going through now, if you are manufacturing a product that relies on sales it’s not easy.”

But Instarmac itself has experienced no shortage of employment enquiries. By caring for its staff, doing work with the local community and generating itself positive press, it has not found recruitment to be a problem — and the Best Companies award should only further facilitate that. “We have received more enquiries about employment [since winning the accolade],” Rose confirms. “But since we’re always supporting local charities, helping the local community and doing a lot of local press we generally tend to attract more [applicants] than the average firm anyway. And winning the award will help.”

Rose is clear that positive publicity can go a long way towards changing how young people see the manufacturing industry as a whole: “The more positive press an industry receives can only do good,” she says.

Exciting opportunities
John Grange, an advisor for government business advice consultancy Business Link, who has worked extensively with manufacturers wishing to improve their business processes, agrees: “One of my manufacturing clients is an Investor In People,” he says. “The main thing it has given him is that the people who work there feel they have a future; that they’re not in a ‘cul-de-sac’. It helps them attract younger people.”

Grange insists that public perception of manufacturing is outdated. “The whole nature of manufacturing has changed in the last ten years and is still changing,” he says. “It is much more of a value-added, high technology, lean, innovative environment than the UK appreciates. Manufacturing should not have a grimy, oily rag, machine-shop image any more. Within manufacturing businesses there are huge opportunities – [look at] GKN, Rolls Royce, British Aerospace [now BAE Systems]. They make their money out of making things and they have that ‘label’ of manufacturer, but they are genuinely international, innovative businesses and within that, there are huge opportunities,” he emphasises.

What does Grange think manufacturers should be doing to attract the best talent? “Businesses, if they are going to be successful, have got to be innovative. You can sit on your hands and say, ‘it’s all the Government’s fault, it’s the school system’s fault’, etc or you can get involved in apprenticeships,internal induction, up-skilling, cross-skilling, looking at your existing workforce and going out to schools and colleges,” he says. “We’re all creatures of habit; we’re all a bit frightened of change, but I’m a great believer in the Darwinian theory of economics. The species that will not survive are those which can’t adapt to change. They will become extinct – and it’s the same with business.”

Grange himself worked for an SME in the engineering sector, which gained much of its business from exports: “We had 19 and 20 year olds who were spending time in Japan and the west coast of America! They’d never get that opportunity in other businesses.”

Start early
Talking about it is one thing, but actually delivering the message to young people at the right age is crucial. Rachael Wignall is a manufacturing support technician at electronic equipment manufacturer C-TEC, having joined the company as an apprentice. She acts as an ambassador for the industry, going into schools and talking to young people. “It’s a really good career path because of the progression the industry allows you through internal promotion and the training that manufacturers actually invest in their staff,” Wignall explains. She believes that government has a key role to play in boosting the image of manufacturing in the eyes of young people: “The Government plays a big role in promoting it,” she says. “I did an interview day for a local school yesterday and I was interviewing the youngsters that wanted to do engineering or electronics or electricals. A lot of the time you find they’re knocking the electronics GCSE or the electrical science GCSE off the syllabus. They’ve introduced a manufacturing GCSE but the schools aren’t supporting it as a subject. By the time children leave school, that option’s not been promoted to them.”

One man trying to turn this situation around is Phil Clarke of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust. He is working to encourage schools and pupils to engage with a new Diploma in Manufacturing and Product Design, to be launched this autumn. The higher diploma is equivalent to completing seven GCSEs and the advanced version, three and half A-levels; both mix classroom-based learning with work experience to give youngsters a true taste of industry.

Clarke realises that manufacturing needs to be presented in its true, updated light in order to attract the talent of the future: “We should be talking about the top technology that’s happening within manufacturing.” He makes the point that by the time today’s schoolchildren graduate, technology will have moved on fast – and it is this exciting, cutting-edge view of the industry that we should promoting. “We’re talking about kids where, if they go on to degree level, it’s going to be another six or seven years down the line [before they start work]. What are the possibilities for, say, ten years’ time?”

It’s not just pupils who need to view manufacturing with fresh eyes, says Clarke. He believes teachers need to be encouraged on a similar level: “Get teachers on work placements, out of the classroom and into different environments. It only needs to be for a few hours, to go and see food manufacturing for two hours or digital electronics manufacturing for two hours. We’ve almost got to change the teachers before we change the kids.”

Universities appear to be making no greater effort than schools in this arena, as Robin Watson, MAS regional director for MAS Yorkshire & Humber, explains: “There has been an unfair emphasis on the financial and service industries and a neglect by many universities to make the manufacturing industry more attractive to graduates. But the profile of manufacturing is now starting to improve as confidence in the financial and leisure industries declines,” he adds.

For the many manufacturers frustrated by the myths surrounding the industry, such improvements could not arrive too soon. Jason Aldridge, a director of precision engineers Arrowsmith Engineering in the West Midlands believes the true, cutting-edge side of manufacturing desperately needs to make it into the public eye: “There are still stereotypical perceptions of SME manufacturers being dark, dirty and old fashioned establishments,” he says. “The actual truth is that most SMEs are using CNC machines that are sealed, and manufacturing is therefore a far cleaner environment than previously.

“With the financial crisis and the backlash against the money-led mentality of recent times, it may be a very opportune time to promote manufacturing success – people can relate now to being paid for making a tangible product. [We need to] market this news in a more contemporary style – Formula One is all made here and watched by millions; cutting edge medical innovations [are being] provided worldwide; but what do we focus on in manufacturing? The demise of Rover and Jaguar and terrible shots of old workshops in the Black Country and the back end of Coventry,” he says.

Making it happen
The Manufacturing Institute’s ‘Make it in Manufacturing’ campaign ( is a national initiative designed to help attract new talent into manufacturing and turn around negative perceptions of the industry.

Campaign manager Nicola Eagleton-Crowther is keen to see outdated ideas about the industry overturned: “In general, manufacturing isn’t perceived with the same parity of esteem as other professions, such as IT, media, medicine and law — largely through false perceptions among teachers, parents and children,” she says. “In the current economic climate, however, there is evidence that attitudes are changing. At its recent Skills Summit, the Government stated that in the new world economy, quality jobs will come from a renaissance in manufacturing and the expansion of knowledge-based industries, such as engineering.”

Eagleton-Crowther goes on to illustrate just how much the industry has changed over the years: “The Manufacturing Institute asked a group of bright teenagers – would be graduates – to define modern industry. Almost predictably, they came up with words like dirty, boring, common, dull, conveyor belt, dangerous, long hours.

“Then they spent a day doing the sort of work that takes place in modern UK manufacturing, especially factories where the employees themselves get to play a part in designing the workplace, which is happening more and more. The results? A whole new set of words: creativity, decision-making, modern, opportunities…

“Before another event, just three per cent of students said that they would consider a career in manufacturing or engineering. After the event, it was up to 49%. This reflects the attitudes of wider society which has an outdated perception of what manufacturing is,” says Eagleton-Crowther. “The positive news is that once challenged, these perceptions quickly dissipate.”

ColorMatrix Europe, the leading manufacturer of liquid colourants, additives and dosing systems for the plastics industry, is a prime example of a manufacturer overturning outdated perceptions and looking to the future: “Manufacturing can be regarded as being about boilersuits, grease, oil and sticking two widgets together. That’s just not true!” protests operations director Dave Nuttall. “At ColorMatrix, we have people in R&D, chemists, marketing, IT and there are 15 nationalities represented in our sales and customer service and technical teams. Manufacturing can be so multifaceted and rewarding as a career.

“We should be focused on attracting an enthusiastic new generation of people to fuel a future of smart manufacturing, rather than people who can simply fill technical, low-grade jobs,” Nuttall concludes.

So what does the industry need to do to strengthen its position and protect its future? “For the country to prosper, it needs a strong manufacturing base, which means it needs to be ‘attractive’ as a future career,” MAS’s Watson stresses. “Emerging specialist and niche markets represent a real opportunity for the sector to grow in the next few years.

“Through no fault of its own, manufacturing is having to find new ways of becoming even leaner and fitter than ever before, which means that having a highly skilled and flexible workforce is more important than ever. There is a lack of skills in the industry, covering such a broad spectrum from technical through to strategic level, that needs to be urgently addressed,” he emphasises.