Andy Tuscher: Think big for a new industrial revolution

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WHEN Ed Miliband addressed manufacturing business leaders at our annual conference, they were hoping to hear words of reassurance from the Labour leader.

They wanted to hear a plain, serious and binding business case for Britain – one that demonstrates Labour’s commitment to supporting and investing in business for the long-term.

They wanted to hear how his party – if elected – would build upon the blossoming economic revival and how he would continue to support manufacturing as it performs the vital role of rebalancing our out-of-kilter economy.

In the rough and tumble of a general election campaign the economy and the needs of business can often be overshadowed.

At our conference we challenged those wanting to lead our next government to tell us how they would get down to business. What building blocks would they ring-fence, reinforce or put in place to ensure that Britain’s manufacturing renaissance is able to carry on at a pace?

You see, this election comes at a critical time. Not just because of the stage we are at with our economic recovery, but also because we are on the brink of a fourth industrial revolution. Our latest report – Manufacturing Britain’s Future – sets out how “Industry 4.0” is upon us and how innovative firms can take a lead and help position the UK as a global manufacturing and technology hub. The clever implementation and speedy adaptation of new technology will be a key weapon for our sector in the global battle for dominance.

The fourth industrial revolution has the potential to change British manufacturing beyond all recognition. It will impact how we make things, where we make things, the relationships we have with our customers and suppliers and how well we are able to compete.

This report provides a powerful vision of our sector’s future and the issues we must tackle today if British manufacturing is to remain relevant and a force to be reckoned with over decades to come.

The Government has a huge role to play in helping to drive this. The current coalition has, to its credit, launched a number of initiatives aimed at supporting innovation and growth, but much more needs to be done to rebalance our economy, secure.

We want the next Government to be big and bold in its thinking – more importantly we want it to set some ambitious targets, such as for of three-quarters of jobs to be medium or high-skilled by 2020 and for 90 per cent of state secondary school maths, physics, chemistry and biology teachers to have at least a post A-level qualification in the subject they teach.

We want to see a 25 per cent increase in the number of apprentices completing engineering and manufacturing apprenticeships, and by 2020 to have increased the number of UK engineering graduates by 25 per cent and to have cut the number of hard-to-fill manufacturing vacancies to 25 per cent.

Above all we want to see the Government and manufacturers working together to progress the skills agenda.

We already have some embryonic examples of how this is working in the region, such as the UTC in Sheffield, which is considered to be leading, plus others due to go ahead in the region within the next two years that manufacturers are heavily involved in.

Here at EEF we’re also about to jointly-launch a National College of Advanced Manufacturing with the High Value Manufacturing Catapult based in Sheffield.

These types of activities will not only secure competitive gains for business, but deliver employment and higher living standards for workers. However, more needs to be done.

In addition to sustained growth in the sector’s talent pipeline, investment in the national skills infrastructure must be leveraged to deliver the greatest economic benefit.

However, policy- makers must listen more and allow employers to play a greater role in driving the skills agenda.

The fact is that we can no longer afford to be short-term in our thinking. A visionary future requires a visionary approach.

We can no longer think of skills in terms of today or tomorrow – we have to think in terms of our requirements to 2050 and beyond. It’s time for Britain to get down to business.

Andy Tuscher is the regional director of EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation.