Top five manufacturing myths busted

A national understanding and appreciation of all things manufacturing will never happen while widely-held and wholly incorrect perceptions of what industry looks like persist. Jonny Williamson busts the top five manufacturing myths.

Production at the McLaren Technology Centre - image courtesy of McLaren Automotive.
Production at the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking – image courtesy of McLaren Automotive.

“You write about manufacturing, that must be easy – the UK doesn’t make anything anymore.” I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard these words, or variations of them, in response to people hearing what I do.

It’s gotten to the stage where I now have a prepared response, ready to roll out at the drop of a hat, littered with facts and figures to illustrate that, in fact, quite the opposite is true.

I’m sure many have encountered similar scenarios the length and breadth of the nation, either directly or indirectly. So, next time you hear someone claiming one of the below statements as true, persuade them otherwise with this bookmark-and-share article.

Myth 1: Manufacturing is unimportant

We are led to believe that manufacturing is on the eternal decline, both in terms of the number of people employed and its contribution to the national coffers. Time and time again we hear that the UK is a service-led economy, largely reliant on the nation’s status as a global finance & professional services powerhouse, with a high number of column inches and news reports not so subtly reinforcing the fact.

And yet, the total economic contribution of manufacturing (11%) and finance & professional services (12%) is largely the same. The difference in total workforces is also closer than you might think, roughly 2.7 million compared to 2.2 million. [Figures taken from TheCityUK]

Manufacturing Myths - Infographic 1 - image courtesy of The ManufacturerAn oft-quoted crutch used to support industrial tales of woe is that in the 1970s, manufacturing contributed 25% of the UK GDP, compared to less than half that today.

What is less often discussed is the widespread diversification of the UK economy over the past five decades, with the emergence of many new sectors and industries – gaming, digital, electric vehicles, and renewable energy to highlight a handful.

It’s also of no coincidence that since the 1970s, activities previously handled in-house by manufacturing businesses have been progressively outsourced – everything from catering and security, to HR and IT.

It may be true that the UK economy benefits from a strong service contribution, but it would be foolish to think that these services operate in isolation. Rather, there exists a symbiotic balance, one in which both manufacturers and service providers rely upon each other.

Alongside this outsourcing, modern manufacturers are increasingly becoming service-oriented themselves, transitioning from a traditional product-led business model to a more service or capability focused offering.

If you take this wider impact of manufacturing into account, it’s estimated that the sector could account for 19% of the UK economy – almost double the share implied by national accounts, and drawing close to industry’s 1970s “heyday”.

Myth 2: Manufacturing is dirty and unhealthy

Aside from the clean-rooms of pharmaceutical, biotechnology and healthcare – each of which, incidentally, the UK is a world-leader in – it’s easy to see where this perception arose.

At one stage in time, manufacturing wasn’t a particularly clean, healthy or even safe environment to spend eight-plus hours a day in. However, this is a far-cry from modern manufacturing, something which ever-more stringent environmental, health and safety laws guarantee.

Manufacturing Myths - Infographic 2 - - image courtesy of The ManufacturerPersonal protection equipment (PPE) is now enforced to an almost military degree. Chemical compositions are less toxic, machinery is mostly self-lubricating, and nearly all equipment has been ergonomically designed and fitted with a variety of safety functions. An emphasis on maximising material usage means that swarf, for example, is no longer piled eight inches deep at an operator’s feet, but syphoned off, collected and recycled.

Deeply embedded cultures of lean and 5S ensure workspaces are tidy and well organised, with well-stocked cleaning and first aid stations stationed throughout should an incident occur.

Something else to consider is that a career in industry doesn’t necessarily mean spending your entire working life on the production floor. Manufacturing offers a multitude of more office-based roles, for want of a better phrase, including programmers, CAD engineers, designers, researchers and quality controllers, to name but a handful.

This is in addition to all the roles you’d find within any organisation – regardless of activity, such as sales, marketing, finance, management and so on.

Myth 3: Manufacturing is poorly paid

This is one of the most pervasive myths and is largely a fallacy. According to recent ONS figures, the mean annual gross pay in manufacturing is just shy of £31,500. That’s well above the national average earnings of £27,607, which in turn is above that of services at £26,825.

Manufacturing Myths - Infographic 3 - - image courtesy of The ManufacturerThat disparity can also be seen in the change in average earnings since 2013, per EEF analysis, with increases of 3% for manufacturing, 1.6% for the whole economy and 1.4% for services.

EEF’s latest pay benchmarking report reveals that UK graduate engineering salaries in 2016 rose 4% on the previous year to top £28,000. Such an increase means that engineering graduates now earn over £5,000 (22%), a year more than other UK graduates. This trend continues with both engineers and senior engineers also earning well above the UK average.

As Tim Thomas, EEF’s director of employment and skills policy, puts it, “Engineering skills are in high demand and in short supply, which is why they continue to command a premium and why employers are prepared to pay for it.” A fact reinforced year after year in The Manufacturer’s own Annual Manufacturing Report.

Industry also leads the country when it comes to apprenticeships, with UKCES reporting that almost a fifth (19%) of manufacturers offer formal apprenticeships, compared to 15% across the whole economy and 14% for business and other services.

Today, the choice between apprenticeship or degree doesn’t have to be so binary, thanks to the introduction of degree apprenticeships in September 2015. Essentially offering the best of both worlds, degree apprenticeships combine full-time paid work with free part-time university study and are suitable for 16 to 18 year olds, as well as mature students looking for career progression.

Myth 4: Manufacturing is for “less academic” people

Closely related to people’s belief that careers in industry are poorly paid, is the misconception that manufacturing offers low-skilled, stagnate positions for those who didn’t do particularly well at school. I’ve heard numerous stories of teachers actively using the idea of “ending up in a factory” as the stick to encourage students to study hard and progress to university.

Manufacturing Myths - Infographic 4 - - image courtesy of The ManufacturerWhen it comes to education, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Some learn by doing, some by watching, some by listening, others a mixture of all three. We need to erode the inequality which exists between academic education and vocational training, particularly as manufacturing requires both and offers well-paid, rewarding, upwardly mobile careers in return.

Most companies, regardless of sector, will have roles which demand varying degrees of skills, alongside entry-level or intern positions. Yet the idea that most manufacturing jobs require long hours stood at a line performing simple, repetitive tasks is false, especially as automation is increasingly shouldering much of the manual assembly burden.

The reality is that today’s workers are highly skilled, tech-savvy and innovative, often moving between roles within a single shift. The growing proliferation of automation means you’re now more likely to see a worker with a control unit in their hand, rather than a spanner.

Almost two-thirds (65%) of UK manufacturing businesses invested in automation over the past 12 months, according to the latest Annual Manufacturing Report, with the majority of respondents either already undertaking a move to Industry 4.0 (23%) or were planning to do so (62%). Contrary to popular perception, more than half (51%) of those investing in automation expect to redeploy existing staff to perform more profitable roles within the organisation.

Manufacturers are leading the way when it comes to advanced technology, employing it to transform every process and operation. Cloud computing, 3D printing, the Industrial Internet of Things, augmented reality, advanced robotics, cyber-physical systems, artificial intelligence, machine-learning, digital factories. These advancements are all a reality today, and the people who use them are skilled, creative and at the cutting-edge.

Myth 5: Manufacturing is no place for women

It would be wrong to try and claim that manufacturing wasn’t currently male-dominated, but things are beginning to improve. According to WISE, a campaign to promote women in science, technology and engineering, there were more than 793,000 women in STEM occupations in 2015, 15% higher than in 2014. That equates to women making up almost 15% of the UK STEM workforce.

Manufacturing Myths - Infographic 5 - - image courtesy of The ManufacturerLess than 10% of the engineering workforce are women, with EEF reporting that the average manufacturing company is made up of 85% men and 15% women. There are two primary issues: a lack of inspirational role models, and the way engineering is presented (to everyone, parents included).

Campaigns like the National / International Women in Engineering Day, the Women’s Engineering Society, Women in Engineering, and The Manufacturer’s own Top 100 report all help to celebrate the huge achievements of women in industry, as well as the wide variety of careers available. Yet the more endemic barrier, one which is far more challenging to solve, is how manufacturing and engineering is sold.

A career in industry provides the opportunity to work on projects which make a genuine difference to communities and the world, the chance to gain valuable, globally-recognised skills, to travel the world, engage with a wide variety of different sectors and benefit from flexible ways of working. This isn’t just the way we sell manufacturing to young women; it should be how we promote it to everyone.

Studies have shown that the merest hint of negativity can be enough to dissuade somebody, particularly an impressionable teenager, for example, from pursuing a particular career. British companies face an enormous STEM skills crisis, with the annual shortfall in the number of qualified engineers and technicians running into the tens-of-thousands.

We need to transform the way we market careers in industry and ensure that factors such as creative, dynamic, challenging and well-paid are prominently emphasised. If we can do that, the sector will find the talented individuals it requires. That goes for both men and women; after all, the opportunity to help change the world is an attractive perk for any job.