British Manufacturing is Booming but could fail through skills shortage
2 September 2010
According to research by Professor John Bryson from the University of Birmingham’s School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, British manufacturing is thriving, not declining, but is at risk of collapse due to a severe shortage of skills.
Speaking at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)’s annual international conference), Professor Bryson points out that UK manufacturing industry produces more now in equivalent value of products than it did in 1966 – the peak year for manufacturing employment in the UK. He says that the companies that are now the bedrock of British industry have transformed their businesses to produce information-rich, design-intensive and high-value products.
“Policy makers and government no longer understand British industry. Unfortunately manufacturing conjures up images of pollution, heavy engineering, and industrial decline, but this view does not describe the new breed of British manufacturing companies that are constantly adapting and changing to the needs of the customer,” Professor Bryson said.
Successful firms, however, are now concerned about the lack of high-tech skills in the labour market and some are even worried that their businesses may not survive into the next decade due to their inability to recruit employees with the right expertise. For one firm this meant employing a 75-year old as it was not possible to find the rights skills in a younger person.
“The skills shortage facing British manufacturing poses a huge threat to its continued survival and competitiveness. It will be extremely difficult for firms to grow and in some cases even continue as companies will find it increasingly difficult to recruit commercially-aware engineers and other forms of skilled labour,” Professor Bryson explained.
Professor Bryson estimates that there will be approximately 90,000 hard-to-fill manufacturing jobs in the West Midlands alone over the next five years and that education is the key to unlocking this problem. “The UK does not place an emphasis on this particular type of expertise and it is not promoted as a long-term career option as it is seen as low-skilled. The firms that need the skilled labour do not have the capacity to offer training as they are largely small and medium businesses (SMEs).”
The research carried out at Birmingham identified four main survival strategies. These include companies producing customised, hybrid products that require close contact with the consumer and a ‘cradle to grave’ approach to servicing the customer’s needs. Other companies have developed skills and expertise that are difficult to replicate or transfer and production processes that are protected by patents and registered designs. Then other companies maintain their market through a continual process of product innovation. For other unbeatable delivery times and proximity to market enables British firms to respond quickly to customer demands. Whatever the strategy of survival, the research points to the need for a better strategy on training and skills in the UK.