Manufacturers in the West Midlands are back in business – but Anna Blackaby finds it’s proving tough to find the staff to support their resurgence.
With exports bouncing back and big orders released that were put on hold during the recession, Gerry Dunne is interviewing for new staff at his Birmingham engineering firm.
Given the region’s jobless statistics – 9.9 per cent unemployment, the highest in the country – precision pressings and tooling firm Westley Engineering could be forgiven for expecting a deluge of applicants.
The factory is located in the Birmingham area of Newtown, part of the Ladywood parliamentary constituency which has among the highest levels of joblessness in the country.
But the only people with the right skills who have answered the job ads, publicised through four agencies and Job Centre Plus, are sixty-year-olds.
Mr Dunne said: “As things started to increase turnover-wise in the last six to eight months and with the future looking very rosy, we are now looking to take on people that are skilled.
“I’m looking for one on the machining side, one on the toolmaking side and one on the estimating side.
“For the estimating job, virtually nobody came by and the guy I eventually took on was a sixty-year-old. Today I’ve been interviewing for a toolroom manager’s position.
“I’ve had three applicants, one of them in their mid-forties who didn’t have enough experience and the only guy with experience is a sixty-year-old.”
Mr Dunne pointed to the legacy of the demise of engineering giants in the area, which is still being felt by today’s manufacturers.
“There’s an era when training stopped, when Lucas and places like that stopped employing people.
“That has left a void from the ages of 20 to about 35 to 40 – there’s nobody in that range,” he said.
His words are echoed at another factory in Birmingham’s inner city – Barkley Plastics in Highgate – which specialises in design, toolmaking, moulding and assembly.
Like others in the sector, Barkley Plastics was hit hard in the recession, shedding 25 per cent of the workforce, but a resurgence in orders, especially exports, means it has come back to near the level of jobs it supported three years ago.
A quick look at the skilled workers on the shopfloor brings home the challenges that lie ahead in the medium term.
Justin Anstey, the firm’s business development manager, said: “The guys we have in our toolroom are all late forties, which is great today but our concern is in 10 years down the line.
“Designers are hard to come by, and trying to find a good designer which understands the business is very hard and very expensive.
“I believe there will be a gap in 10 to 15 years’ time.”
The previous Government and now the coalition Government have recognised the issue, putting a renewed emphasis on on-the-job training with George Osborne announcing last year an extra 75,000 apprenticeships.
Both Westley Engineering and Barkley Plastics are looking to take on apprentices this year.
Westley Engineering’s Mr Dunne said: “I’ve got a number of people over the next couple of years up for retirement so I’m looking to get new blood in so there will be a natural transition.
“My thoughts at the moment are that I’m going to take on these older people as that will take me through the next five to 10 years.
“And the retirement age is changing, they may retire at 68 or 69 so I have a chance to have them for six or seven years, but this year I’m going to take on apprentices to generate my own.”
Despite high levels of unemployment on their doorstep, firms are finding it difficult to get youngsters enthusiastic about a career in manufacturing owing to its low starting wages and poor image among school-leavers.
Mr Anstey of Barkley Plastics said: “Youngsters have high expectations of wages – they see dustmen starting on £24,000.”
Westley Engineering’s Gerry Dunne is also finding the same issue.
“Apprentices never get paid well by virtue of the fact that they don’t do a lot until they start earning their own living,” he said. “There are a lot of jobs in supermarkets which pay substantially higher wages.
“It’s too easy to earn £5 or £6 an hour at Asda and Morrisons, whereas you come into engineering and you are only going to earn £100 a week.
“Kids nowadays want to go into a job where they don’t get dirty and they want big bucks sooner rather than later.”
It’s an issue policy-makers are waking up to, and at the recent Manufacturing Summit the Government stressed its desire to “throw open the doors” of factories to show students and teachers the innovation and skills required in modern manufacturing.
Simon Griffiths, chief executive of the Manufacturing Advisory Service West Midlands, pointed to a programme of best practice visits where firms get the chance to see how other manufacturers operate.
“There is no reason why a similar scheme should not be created for young people, college leavers and graduates,” he said.
“In fact, there used to be one in the region and we would welcome the possibility of restarting this initiative as it resulted in significant positive perception changes at a time when many were considering their future careers.
“Ensuring the skills of the future is a major challenge and one that exists now and not in the future.
“The Government and businesses have a role to play in meeting this head on and changing the image of manufacturing is an excellent start.”