The new president of Birmingham Chamber of Commerce has said 30 years of decline in manufacturing has left a dying breed of engineers bracketed with washing machine mechanics.
Steve Brittan, who took on the role this week, issued a rallying call for a rethink on the status of engineers as key to economic growth – and warned the ‘flat cap, smokestack’ image of manufacturing was outdated.
And the managing director of Kitts Green-based BSA Machine Tools said exports were “one, two and three” in the recovery, citing the example of Jaguar Land Rover’s recent successful overseas drives.
Mr Brittan said: “My whole background is in manufacturing and engineering and I love the challenge of a technical problem. But we have seen 30 years of progressive decline over here. As a result skills have nigh on gone.
“Because of that downward cycle, there has been very little apprenticeships and training. There has been a big drive into the service sector, finance, the City, anything but manufacturing – previous governments wanted everybody to go to university.
“We need a service sector, we need finance and tourism, it is critical to our balance of payments. People still see it (manufacturing) as flats caps and smokestacks; I would like to see more people come into advanced engineering.
“We should move into advanced engineering, do what Jaguar Land Rover has done and use that as a flagship.
“The guy that mends your washing machine is not an engineer. The engineer is the guy that initiates change. He is a well-paid professional and attracts the very best in terms and conditions.
“Exports are one, two and three for me. We have a good exchange rate and we have all the opportunities to export.”
Mr Brittan, who served a six-year apprenticeship at Cincinnati Milling Machines at Tyburn and later worked with GKN Hardy Spicer and Matrix Churchill before being appointed managing director of BSA Machine Tools, said lack of confidence was delaying a return to growth.
“There are a lot of big companies with mountains of cash. They are not investing, and they will not invest until they have the confidence.”
Before taking up the reins as president, Mr Brittan had called for the UK to follow the example of Germany in its treatment of engineers, urging them to be ranked alongside lawyers and doctors.
“The title of engineer needs to be lifted up there with the top trades and professions, like it is in Germany... We must study the German model. The quality of their engineering is among the best in the world, because engineers are right up there with the top professions.”
Meanwhile, Mr Brittan attacked the ‘disappointing’ unemployment figures in the West Midlands, which have seen jobless totals stall at 235,000.
“These figures are disappointing and contrast with the latest survey by the chamber, which revealed that nearly a third of businesses in the Greater Birmingham area were trying to recruit.
“In order to help tackle this, we believe the Government must do more to free business from the burden of regulation and red tape, which hinder job creation by diverting resources and funds away from growth.
“To get into work, to escape poverty, to improve our economy and to raise the quality of life for citizens of this city, the answer is skills, skills and yet more skills.”