The fourth annual EEF Yorkshire and the Humber Manufacturing Dinner recently took place with conversations dominated by talk of collaboration, investment and of course, Brexit. Jonny Williamson reports.
The UK’s seventh largest region in terms of total output, Yorkshire and the Humber, has seen the fastest growth in manufacturing jobs of any UK district since 2010, up by more than 12%.
This record level of job creation has been driven by the area’s almost 300,000 highly skilled engineers, designers, operators, technicians whose output contributes 17% of Yorkshire and the Humber’s total economy.
In the face of ongoing geopolitical and economic uncertainty, the region has been among the most resilient in the UK, with the output balance turning negative only once since 2012, with output and orders expected to remain positive for the remainder of the year.
The latest figures paint a picture of buoyancy; however, UK manufacturers remain cautious regarding future prospects – clearly linked to uncertainty around the nation’s future relationship with the European Union.
In such times, the opportunity to learn and discuss the current challenges facing all businesses, regardless of size or sector, and forge the relationships necessary to foster collaboration and innovation is even more imperative.
Against that backdrop, close to 350 of region’s finest business leaders, academics and supporters came together on September 13 at the auspicious Cutler’s Hall in Sheffield for this year’s EEF Yorkshire and the Humber Manufacturing Dinner.
Opportunities for growth
Andy Tüscher, EEF Yorkshire & the Humber region director presided over the evening, highlighting how much there is to be proud of. He stressed, however, that UK manufacturers should not become complacent and must always look to embrace opportunities for growth.
“It is interesting to see that there has been growth in the non-traditional sectors and regions showing the increasing importance that manufacturing has across the country,” Tüscher said.
“However, to build momentum on this renewed optimism, our region’s manufacturers must look at the opportunities beyond our own borders to extend their growth potential. Export is key to our continued success.”
The region has the highest proportion of exports going to sub-Saharan Africa and exports above the UK average to Latin America and the Caribbean, for example.
Positive figures tempered by Yorkshire and the Humber accounting for less than 5% of the UK’s manufactured exports in 2016, the third lowest in the UK and clearly there is room for improvement.
Another focus area should be investment, Tüscher added, as the region’s manufacturers appear to be choosing increasing labour to boost production rather than making significant capital investments in machinery or automation. This may go some way to explain the high employment balance and the flat or negative investment intentions recorded for six of the past seven quarters.
A key theme throughout the evening was that UK manufacturers don’t have to face challenges alone. There are numerous organisations, associations and networks offering guidance and supports on everything from finance, tax credits and supply chains, to exports, skills and technology.
Take Allied Irish Bank (AIB), for example, an institution with more than 40 years’ experience in supporting UK manufacturers and headline sponsor of the EEF Yorkshire and the Humber Manufacturing Dinner 2017.
“We are enormously proud to be here supporting EEF. Manufacturing is one of the key areas for AIB as a sector-focused business bank and we truly see the sector as the backbone of the UK economy,” Head of Asset Based Lending, Michael Oxby explained.
“These events are vital because everything is so connected – supply chains, production, distribution, so it’s a great networking opportunity to talk and learn about different businesses and approaches, as much for us as manufacturers themselves.”
It was a theme reinforced by Tracie Norton, one of the four business partners and owners of the evening’s official sponsor, E3 Recruitment, who noted that it’s only through meeting and talking to others can you gain an understanding of the potential benefits of working together.
The recent success achieved by Leeds-based hydraulics manufacturer, Oilgear, is an apt example of what collaboration can bring to UK manufacturers.
Twelve months ago, Oilgear hosted a Ministry of Defence forum for suppliers as a direct result of its partnership with EEF. The forum led the business onto the government’s satellite review, which in turn led to a site visit from Nick Hurd MP and an introduction to KPMG.
“If we hadn’t been involved with EEF, we would never have had these opportunities,” Oilgear’s managing director, Kieran Doyle, explained. “Five years ago, our turnover was 80% group driven and just 20% generated in the UK. Today, those figures have reversed, in large part thanks to EEF’s support.”
A united front for UK manufacturers
EEF’s chief executive, Terry Scuoler, arrived slightly late to proceedings, but his excuse was a good one. He had come directly from a Downing Street meeting with the Chancellor Phillip Hammond, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union David Davis, and Business Secretary Greg Clark.
The “Brexit tectonic plates” shifted on the morning of 9 June, Scuoler declared in his after-dinner speech, when contrary to expectation Theresa May failed to secure a parliamentary majority and with that a mandate for a potentially hard Brexit.
Since then, Scuoler continued, EEF has noticed an ideological and welcome stepping back from the previous potential hard Brexit position and its potential ramifications, such as a reluctance to recognise the need for UK manufacturers to have access to migrant workers with a wide range of skills, and a very limited transition period.
The sooner a transition period is agreed is critical, he noted, adding that EEF is pressing for agreement during the next round of talks commencing in October.
“I remain cautiously optimistic,” Scuoler concluded. “Logic surely demands that the UK and EU will not dismantle the best free trade relationship in the world, the ‘Single Market’, and in doing so harm many thousands of businesses and all 500 million citizens of the 28 countries in the EU.”
“However, if logic and common sense do not prevail and ‘hard Brexit’ is the eventual outcome, possibly caused by EU intransigence or lack of cohesion, then what?
“Well, we are the fifth largest economy in the world, the eighth largest manufacturing nation. We have some of the most productive companies in the world; Disproportionally to our population, we have the best universities in the world. We are a global language and we have the finest judicial system in the world.
“Let us therefore continue to press for a smooth and orderly Brexit, but whatever happens I have no doubt that Great Britain will survive and prosper and it will do because of people like you in this room.”