Skills gaps could ruin industry

Posted on 2 Sep 2010 by The Manufacturer

A leading industry professor has warned that manufacturing in the UK could “collapse” within five years because of a lack of skills.

This is despite manufacturing output being higher now in terms of overall value than at the industry’s employment peak in the 1960s.

Professor John Bryson, chair of Enterprise and Economic Geography at the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences University of Birmingham, maintains that manufacturing is currently thriving and not in decline – the tale often told by the media – but its demise could soon be brought about by a severe shortage of skills.

There will be 90,000 jobs in the West Midlands alone over the next five years which will be “hard to fill”, he contends. He says this is the result of an inefficient education system which itself is borne out of the fact that “policy makers and government no longer understand British industry”.

“Unfortunately manufacturing conjures up images of pollution, heavy engineering, and industrial decline, but this view is now outdated and anachronistic, and does not describe the new breed of British manufacturing companies that are constantly adapting and changing to the needs of the customer and finding innovative ways to improve their business and to stay in business,” says Bryson, talking today at the Royal Geographical Society’s annual conference.

“British manufacturing is thriving because many firms have transformed themselves to produce high-value, innovative products rather than trying to compete in the mass market on price with China and other countries.

“British manufacturing is now about hybrid products, products that contain embedded services, products that require a constant dialogue with the customer, design-intensive products that have attachments with designated geographic locations and convey positive connotations of reputation and quality.

“It is therefore extremely worrying that the UK has so many success stories in manufacturing and has such a solid base in modern manufacturing, but that there is a huge threat to the continued survival and competitiveness of British manufacturing. This threat involves hard-to-fill vacancies and skill shortages that will make it extremely difficult for firms to grow and in some cases even continue to survive as companies find it increasingly difficult to recruit commercially aware engineers and other forms of skilled labour.”

Part of the problem he said is that the firms that need specialised training are largely SMEs that are not able to offer it themselves. A lot of the bigger companies who are in a position to fund training have moved operations out of the UK. Therefore, he says, it is vital that manufacturing career routes are presented as attractive options to students at GCSE and A level.