The region’s thriving manufacturers are set to offer thousands of jobs in coming years – but this success story could come crashing down due to a lack of skills.
Over the next five years the West Midlands will see around 90,000 hard-to-fill manufacturing jobs as the UK’s buoyant industrial base turns out more products than in 1966 when employment in the sector was at its peak.
But despite the region having 221,000 people out of work, manufacturers are struggling to recruit because the local workforce does not have the skills needed to make these products.
Some firms even admit that an ageing workforce and a lack of fresh blood mean they will have to shut up shop in the next ten years and other companies have resorted to taking on 75-year olds as they could not find suitably qualified younger people.
The findings, from research carried out by the University of Birmingham revealed at the Royal Geographical Society’s annual international conference, highlight the need to change the image of manufacturing in schools to encourage more young people into industry.
Professor John Bryson, Chair of Enterprise and Economic Geography at the University of Birmingham, said UK manufacturing was in “rude health” thanks to its focus on design and innovation which meant British products could not be copied by low-cost countries.
But he warned that the public perception of manufacturing was negative and stuck in the past, meaning young people were being put off the sector at school.
“You could argue it’s an opportunity, but it’s also a problem and a threat,” he said.
“There are vast numbers of potential job opportunities out there – as long as individuals are sold manufacturing as a potential career option and as long as the schools, further education colleges and universities highlight manufacturing as something that is desirable. How many school teachers stand up in front of their class and say a career in manufacturing is something you should be considering?”
He said his research had led him to see first-hand a wide selection of manufacturers in the West Midlands, including companies working across the automotive, jewellery, textiles and foundries sector, who all reported similar problems in finding suitably skilled staff.
One particularly worrying finding was that some of the companies he spoke to said they would be forced to shut eventually because of skills shortages.
“It will put them under – they are planning to close because they have hard-to-fill vacancies,” he said.
“They have people in their fifties, sixties and seventies and they have tried to replace those individuals and have been unable to.”
He warned a lack of skills was as serious a threat as globalisation had been to the industry.
“If we don’t do anything we will have another form of erosion,” he said.
“Globalisation is erosion from above. What we’re arguing is that the surviving companies who have been very successful in dealing with globalisation are going to suffer erosion from below.
“There is a structural deficit within the labour market which means they will not be able to recruit the skilled staff they require to manufacture their products.”
Like many other firms, Birmingham-based presswork and stampings firm Brandauer recognised difficulties in recruiting the right people.
Company finance director Theresa Williams, who is responsible for human resources, said: “We are a long-established family business and we have employees who are very skilled but they are also very long-serving employees. They have the trade and technical skills but they also have the company knowledge. That’s something that’s very difficult to replace when people come to retirement age.”
She agreed that there was a lot of negativity around the image of manufacturing, which put young people off going into industry.
“Over the last few years we have been hearing that manufacturing is a dying trade – that’s not going to encourage youngsters into manufacturing.
“The other thing is that other industries such as IT are sold as more sexy and that’s capturing the attention of the youngsters.”
Peter Winebloom, head of apprentices and skills for manufacturing body EEF, said that increasingly companies were looking to take training into their own hands to tackle the skills shortage. With government cutbacks set to hit training, he predicted this was something we would see more of in the future.
“Employers will have to step up to the mark in terms of training,” he said.
“As we come out of recession and companies gain confidence then they will start looking at development and taking on apprentices.”