The use of temporary workers from overseas is only putting off the recruitment and skills timebomb which is threatening to engulf UK manufacturing, it is claimed.
Urgent action is needed to tackle the problem in the next decade if Britain is to remain competitive as an industrial location, said Dr Ben Clegg of Aston Business School.
The average age of people working in the sector is older than the rest of the economy, with people not being permanently replaced.
Dr Clegg said: "Companies are employing increasing amounts of foreign labour to fill the gaps. There are Indian, Chinese and Polish people here who are learning the skills. But many of them will not stay in this country for ever, so when they return they will take these skills with them.
"Britain's skills advantage is getting eroded. Manufacturing has seen a recent rise in Polish workers for example, and that is only going to increase. When they are gone, we are left without those skills."
Dr Clegg said this issue needed to be tackled in the next decade if serious problems were to be avoided.
"We have an aging population, but the manufacturing population is aging even more. The average age of people in manufacturing is in their 50s. We have to act soon otherwise there won't be the people there to do these jobs."
But just because the UK is a high cost country, it does not mean that manufacturing should be abandoned, said Dr Clegg.
He was speaking after the first session of a network set up to shape the future of manufacturing in Britain.
The Manufacturing Futures Network aims to bring supporters of manufacturing together to assess ways of developing – and sustaining – a strong future for the manufacturing industries. The group, which was launched at a workshop at Aston Business School Conference Centre, will collect findings over the next two years before reporting to the DTi.
Dr Clegg, said: "We aim to raise the debate about the competitive bases of UK manufacturing, and this network forms an integral part of that, by influencing both policy and practice.
"We are trying to establish a bringing together of academic researchers from leading universities around the country, current and future industrial leaders who will have a major impact on how manufacturing is done in the future, and also government bodies like the DTi.
"This is a national initiative looking at the future of UK manufacturing and how this country can compete in the global market place."
As well as skills and recruitment, other key themes raised included the use of new technology and the need for more collaboration at all levels between firms.
"Large companies need to work better with smaller companies. Sometimes a project may be too expensive for a small organisation to get involved in, while large firms can be too bureaucratic," said Dr Clegg.
Government could do more to help by cutting corporation tax or helping with apprentice schemes, Dr Clegg added. "We need to get the Government to support manufacturing. We think they could do more. It is sad when we compare ourselves to other countries which are not low cost, but have had the foresight to compete.
"France and Germany have managed to keep their manufacturing base.
"It is all too easy to say we cannot compete because we have a high cost base. European companies are a lot more focused on collaboration. Audi for example has managed to increase its innovation rate and reduce the time to market by working with their suppliers and other companies in Germany."
Dr Jill MacBryde, a senior lecturer in Management Science at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, is leading the project. She said: "We hope that by bringing together a core of committed people from academia and industry we can not only help safeguard UK manufacturing but develop and sustain it." Manufacturing has for centuries been a core part of the economy, producing value-added products and well-paid, highly skilled jobs.
"With innovative technology, management and people, manufacturing can have a very healthy future in the UK."