The collective response to the Coronavirus pandemic has rightfully fostered a war time esc national pride in the NHS, key workers and a growing civic pride not seen in my lifetime.
It has changed how many people regard what it is to ‘be British’.
Out of the most horrendous of global situations, we have been awarded a level of national introspection.
Glancing at my LinkedIn news feed over the past 2 weeks it has been hard not to notice a fast-growing trend: a collective resurgence in a ‘Buy British’ sentiment from those within industry.
Such introspection has also highlighted the importance of one sector to the fight against the virus and to our economic recovery from it; Engineering & Manufacturing.
Many manufacturers locally and nationally, large and small have joined the fight to support the NHS and its’ workers, producing crucial ventilators, visors and PPE.
Collaborations have sprung to life between education and industry, a local example being Thomas Dudley, Metallisation and Dudley College teaming up to produce face guards amid a shortage of personal protective equipment.
Manufacturing providing key support in times of national crisis is nothing new, highlighted by the quote of Stuart Milton, managing director at manufacturer Metallisation, in an Express & Star article regarding the above collaboration: “We have been going for 98 years. Back in the Second World War, we stopped normal production to make Spitfire parts.
“It is in our DNA to help the country out in times of crisis.”
Furthermore, in a recent letter to manufacturers, highlighting the economic importance of manufacturing, Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy THE RT HON ALUK SHARMA MP said: “I want to pay tribute to the work you are doing to keep the UK economy going. Our country needs your support to keep supply chains moving and key workers mobile, as well as to protect our economy as much as possible. Manufacturing is a critical part of our economy and there is no restriction on manufacturing continuing under the current rules”.
Sustaining as much UK manufacturing as we can now is vital for damage limitation to our economy and positioning it for recovery will be vital to our future economic prosperity. But the sector is set to be hit hard by the economic impact of the virus.
The seriousness of purchasing decisions and ‘Buying British’ will therefore become increasingly tested.
Our ability to ‘supply British’ on a large scale will also be tested.
I have seen many comments online from all sides of industry applauding the sentiment of ‘Buy British’ from an industry perspective but bemoaning a lack of a home-grown skills base to truly deliver on that strategy in the long term.
The Engineering Skills Shortage in the UK is widely acknowledged, as is an ageing demographic of workforce and the sectors long held inability to inspire youth towards a career in industry.
We arguably do not have the people to deliver on a long term ‘Supply British’ strategy, with a reliance on imported skills. And as Brexit finishes, parts of our current workforce may potentially choose or be forced to go elsewhere.
Many within industry acknowledge that we just have not created enough interest in manufacturing, engineering, and scientific related industry. Our youth seek more exciting, glamourous and more well-paid employment, without understanding that they CAN achieve this via Engineering.
However, if we seriously want to adopt a long-term strategy of buying British and gradually reduce our reliance on imported goods, we need to attract, nurture and develop our own talent and shout louder than ever about the merits of a career in Engineering to the individual, but also to society.
We need to champion our innovators, celebrate our makers.
Education’s involvement in the response to Coronavirus may assist with this, or at least highlight within the sector both the application and importance of modern engineering.
For example, over the past month or so D&T departments in schools up and down the country have been 3D printing and laser cutting essential PPE for front line NHS staff, almost 200k units at the time of writing.
D&T is a subject regarded by many in education as underfunded, the application of skills acquired and career potential linked to them are regarded as under-championed or mis-understood, but perhaps when this crisis is over many more people will recognise and understand the importance of this subject in real, everyday life, and how it embraces modern methods of manufacturing such as 3D scanning and printing.
To truly deliver a ‘Buy British’ strategy long term, we need to make things smarter in the UK. To make things smarter we need training, investment in skills and prioritising the nurturing and recruitment of younger engineers capable of moving business into the future.
We need better succession planning from manufacturers of their own workforce, taking a longer-term view coupled with short term action.
We need to better influence parents to want their children to be engineers and working in manufacturing and not think these are dirty words.
If we are serious about ‘Buy British’ and our ability to ‘Supply British’, we have an opportunity now to start to take the actions needed to enable us to deliver on this in the long term. A move back to UK supply will not just happen by itself.
UK manufacturing needs to address the engineering skills gap anyway, to future proof the sector.
Why not ramp up our commitment to this in line with strategically capitalising on a commitment to a ‘Buy British’ philosophy?
By Adam Tipper, Next Gen Makers Limited