The industry is undergoing something of a renaissance with plenty of pro-manufacturing rhetoric from ministers as the Government tries to create the conditions for economic growth and a revival in exports as it shrinks the state through public spending cuts.
While in reasonably good health, the manufacturing sector faces some major challenges, notably a shortage of skills.
This theme was debated at an event to promote and enhance the perception of manufacturing, held in Pudsey last week and hosted by ATB Morley, the award-winning manufacturer of electric motors for the global coal mining industry, and attended by businesses, education officers and West Yorkshire dignitaries.
Despite big political speeches talking of a “march of the makers”, there is still a feeling that manufacturing is unfashionable, unprofitable and unloved.
Ian Peacock, operations director at ATB Morley, told the Yorkshire Post that the sector “seems to get a low priority in the big scheme of things in this country”. His company’s markets are booming, but the business can’t expand fast enough to keep pace.
“Part of the reason for this is we have not always got the cash to make investments,” he said, blaming the banks.
Engineering prowess helped Leeds establish its reputation as a leading city of the world, said the Lord Mayor of Leeds, Councillor James McKenna. Margaret Wood, regional director of the IoD, told the audience that engineering and manufacturing are essential to the UK’s future, but warned that if vital skills are lost, they are not easily regained.
The worry around skills is becoming more pressing, given that a lot of smaller businesses “live on the back of training that took place in the 1970s and 1980s”, said Ian Lomax, managing director of ATB Morley.
The company, founded in 1897 and now Austrian owned, is experiencing a period of continued success.
Its workforce has doubled to more than 200 since 2005 and turnover has risen from around £5m to an expected £25m this year over the same period. The vast majority of its products are bound for export markets, half of which are in China, the world’s second-largest economy.
“85 per cent of what we make in Leeds is leaving the country,” he said. The company won a Queen’s Award for international trade in 2009. It won another Queen’s Award last year for innovation, which was presented on Thursday after the event.
Mr Lomax is passionate about manufacturing – a passion which should help alter its perception among a generation of schoolchildren who dream of becoming celebrities.
His career has taken him to every capital city in the world and onto submarines and oil rigs. “It is very exciting and we are trying to encourage people to get involved,” he said.
Like an increasing number of business leaders, he questions the worth of a university degree. Less than five per cent of his workforce have degrees and over the next three or four years the company only plans to hire one university graduate. However, the business will add up to a dozen shop floor workers without degrees this year alone.
Nick Hussey, a publisher and industry champion, reeled off some alarming statistics about the challenge facing firms like ATB Morley.
Figures show that just 12 per cent of 11-16-year-olds know what an engineer is, while 38 per cent view engineering as undesirable and 50 per cent think it “boring”. Attracting the best possible people into the industry needs a long-term strategy, he said.
Stuart Andrew, the Tory MP for Pudsey, was at the event to “learn and listen” so he could feed back views to Government.
School showing the way forward
Fortunately, for one corner of Leeds at least, Guiseley School has developed a diploma to help equip school leavers with the skills needed by manufacturing firms like ATB Morley.
Andy Mangham, a teacher, told the event his diploma will create “technically skilled individuals who can present to others and who can work as part of a team”.
He developed the course over two years, with help from nine companies, two universities and two colleges.
Mr Mangham said: “In this area of the country, engineering is something special. If we are not telling pupils about this, we have fallen short.”
He urged businesses to make contact directly with schools.