Manufacturing defensiveness

If British industry wants to attract young workers, it should take a more hard-headed approach.

Paul Reeves

Topics Politics

Many argue that industry is suffering from a general skills shortage, and that we don’t have enough young people entering the engineering disciplines.

James Dyson, a leading exponent of the manufacturing industry in the UK, complains of having ‘difficulty recruiting people of sufficient calibre and expertise’, and is ‘disheartened’ that design and technology is not to be made compulsory in secondary schools (1). In my own field, providing software for computer-aided manufacturing, we’re also finding it hard to recruit workers.

Attempts to resolve this problem usually revolve around getting young people ‘interested’ in engineering, by making it appear more ‘creative’. There are school initiatives and government-sponsored programmes, such as the promotion of Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) through the ‘F1 Team in Schools Challenge’, which aims ‘to raise the profile of engineering across our schools and colleges’ (2).

At the same time, there are many complaints that ‘UK plc’ is losing its knowledge base – even though the government is popularising the service sectors of the economy, especially in ‘new-fangled’ areas like advertising, new media and media in general. Engineering is certainly not at the bottom of the pay league.

The real problem with expanding our industrial base stems from industry’s lack of conviction in its role in society – a problem that is occurring throughout developed nations.

Industrial production is now seen as a kind of necessary evil. Nearly everyone experiences the personal benefit of car ownership, jet travel, and cheap and nutritious food freshly delivered by modern transport systems. We all benefit from the products that industrial production produces – but always with a tinge of guilt attached to it.

It is still the case that most of our diets consist of food produced by the ‘industrial’ processes of modern agriculture. But the guilt trip kicks in when people are challenged by widespread environmental concerns. We are made to believe that we should recycle more, travel less, show more concern for the planet, not use disposable nappies – even if in reality, it is not practicable to do these things.

Today’s political leaders clearly have a distaste for industry, even while recognising that they cannot ignore it completely. New Labour has made a point of promoting the ‘knowledge-based’ and ‘creative’ economy as the key to Britain’s future prosperity. Some proponents of industry have bought into this, effectively saying: ‘Yes, heavy industrial production is moving abroad, but we are building up our engineering consultancies to replace it, to sell our knowledge of advanced engineering disciplines.’

The government continuously attempts to connect with the young – whether by meeting pop stars or getting involved in football. It would rather not mix – at least not publicly – with the likes of ‘fat cat’ industrialists or old-fashioned ‘industrial’ unions. It’s a bit like: ‘Industry’s okay – but not in front of the children.’

But industry and its leaders – both the directors and their opposite numbers in the unions – have their share of blame for this. While they plead to the UK government’s Department of Trade and Industry (3) for protection from cheap foreign imports and more education directed towards science and engineering, they are also defensive about the benefits of industry.

Consider the disposal of the Brent Spar oil installation, which began in November 1998 – when the multinational oil company Shell caved in to the demands of green activists to dismantle the installation on land, even though scientific evidence suggested that deep-sea disposal would be safer.

BP has been similarly keen to stress its ‘green’ and sustainable credentials, and other companies are more than willing to appoint environmentalists to their advisory panels. This may make economic and PR sense in the short term, but in the long term it hides the real effects on the environment of their core business activities, making the public more cynical.

We need a stronger defence of industrial activity. At present, industry sends out the message that it is in tacit agreement with environmentalists, that industrial activity really is a big problem for humanity. A more traditional view would hold that industrial activity is one of the solutions to the problems we face.

It should be made clear that new industrial processes, as well as increasing levels of production and productivity, will have some unforeseen consequences. But the progress will result in potential benefits to all.

Many today question the ability of humanity to deal with the problems that arise as part of the industrial process. Things are perceived as being out of control, and it seems that everything we do can only make things worse. Industry personifies these fears, and many within industry have nagging doubts that these fears are well founded. The argument needs to be made that as society continues to progress, it can also develop technologies to identify problems and solve them.

Take the use of satellite remote sensing, which first identified the ‘hole’ in the ozone layer. This was the first stage in determining the mechanism that caused the problem. Once the problem was established, policies were developed to deal with it. This is clearly a case where having the most well-equipped toolbox allows us to deal with our problems, even though the tools may have been developed for something else entirely.

As long as young people see industry as a problem, they will flock to low-impact industries such as (non-industrial) design, fashion, marketing, PR and IT. Even in my area of software engineering – one of the ‘non-smokestack’ areas of manufacturing – people are most attracted to glamorous areas, such as computer games and film special effects.

Ask a young person who a ‘cool’ engineer is, and they’ll probably suggest someone like Trevor Bayliss, the inventor of the clockwork radio. But while the end result in that example is low-tech, the materials used – plastics – are the result of many years of heavy industrial development, as are the machine tools used to manufacture the plastic moulds.

Developing countries, which are supposedly the ideal market for the clockwork radio, really need a decent energy supply infrastructure – which can only be provided via heavy industrialisation of their economies.

People in industry need both to defend the existing gains made in their field and to convince themselves of the benefits that can be made in the future. Only then will it be possible to convince the young that it is worth being part of this project.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Economy

(1) Letters, Independent, 21 May 2002

(2) See Background information, on the the F1 Team in Schools Challenge website

(3) See the Department of Trade and Industry website

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Topics Politics


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