Written by Simon Griffiths, MAS (Manufacturing Advisory Service) Area Director
There are many examples within the industry of long-standing employees retiring after spending over 40 years working for the same manufacturing company, what amounts to their entire working lives. When they joined this large multi-national in the late 1960s manufacturing was very much on the up, and an apprenticeship was a well-recognised way of getting into a job that, if not “for life”, was at least a very stable and well respected career.
Manufacturing as an industry and apprenticeships in general may be on the up again but we still have a long way to go until they are both recognised as reputable ways to spend your working life in contemporary society.
So why has the perception changed and what ought we to be doing about it?
Some of the problems relate to the industrial troubles in the 1970s and 80s where management and unions seemed to do their level best to drive industry away from our shores. Manufacturing was too often in the headlines with “Red Robbo’s” strikes and often we heard of major plant closures where uncompetitive working practices meant that work was shipped abroad. The lasting legacy of this has resulted in a generation of families where parents, after seeing significant layoffs in the manufacturing industry, discouraged their children from entering this “risky” business. Ally this to comparisons with the finance sector where the pickings seemed to be easy, salaries were high and flash “yuppies” seemed to show the way to go. Luckily (at least for the manufacturing industry) the collapse of the banking sector showed that the finance sector wasn’t so secure either.
During the same time the media was not helping with images of “dark satanic mills” being used in articles proclaiming manufacturing being a sector that was at best dying and at worst already dead. Luckily for us, manufacturing is anything but dead, and as the first National Manufacturing Advisory Service Barometer report showed [last month] manufacturers are experiencing significant growth. The report shows over 50 percent of companies across England reporting rises in sales over the last six months and over 60 percent forecast sales increases over the next six months – potentially good news ahead?
Maybe somewhat perversely, the recession helped the manufacturing sector. Whilst there were inevitable job losses they were nowhere near as high as would have been expected given the drop in sales. So what happened? In a demonstration of how Management/Union relations have developed over the last 40 years, ‘opposing sides’ worked together to help each other. Unions were keen to minimise job losses, but knew costs had to be cut, and management knew that skills need to be kept in the business so that when the recovery came they were in a position to expand again with employees who had the right skills. The outcome, a mature discussion which resulted in reduced hours and either pay freezes or cuts, but with fewer redundancies than would otherwise have been the case. So now as volumes come back, manufacturing companies can increase hours utilising highly skilled employees.
So what of the future? All is not rosy even though sales are increasing. Many businesses have a demographic time bomb ticking, with average employee ages nearing 50 or even 60. In the not too distant future we will see highly skilled labour retiring and potentially we will have nothing to replace it. Industry and government must collaborate in an effort to attract more youngsters to enter the industry and learn the skills which are vital to keep our businesses going for future generations.
Some businesses already recognise this need and are recruiting apprentices and graduates at an increasing rate (Jaguar Land Rover is a great example of this), but we need more companies to adopt this strategy – not just the large multi-nationals but the small and medium-sized manufacturers that make up 99 percent of the number of businesses across the UK.
So look to the future, develop your own talent and make sure you have the right skills to help your business develop now and for the road ahead.