The media has given UK industry a bit of a battering in the last few years, in fact ever since the high profile industrial collapses in the 70’s the media dwells on doom and gloom stories rather than all the good news that the industrial sector has consistently produced.
I was talking to a bloke last weekend at an arts festival, he was an ordinary chap who happened to have no real interest in cars but as he knew I am a motoring journalist he made conversation by asking what car I would recommend. Being very proud of the UK car industry I immediately replied ‘any car as long as its made in Britain’, he looked quite astonished and said ‘I didn’t think there were any cars still made here’!
This shocked me, the UK makes over 1.5 million cars a year with factories churning out products from Jaguar, Land Rover, Lotus, Toyota, Morgan, Ford, Vauxhall, Rolls Royce, Nissan, Honda, Bentley and BMW to name but a few. About 75% of these are exported bringing in over £25bn to the UK, globally British skills, both in manufacturing and engineering design are recognised as being world class which attracts investment and creates jobs. But we very rarely hear anything about this on the news, in fact when Lotus dropped a few hundred jobs last year it made national news, but when Jaguar recruited about 3500 this year there is no national coverage, I find this very frustrating and also more than a little suspicious.
I am sure the fact that most of the big media organisations are tied up with the financial sector has absolutely no influence on their bias, but it is remarkable how even the phraseology favours the ‘markets’ at the expense of industry. For instance take a look at exchange rates, to sell things we make abroad we need the pound to be cheap and affordable, but the media call this situation a ‘weak’ pound. But when the pound is expensive and unaffordable, which crushes export sales, reduces production and leads to job losses, they refer to that situation as a ‘strong’ pound. Its ridiculous, until you look at the financial sector who benefit greatly when the pound is expensive, and suffer when its cheap.
And the whole idea of being ruled by a stock market that panics like a frightened weasel, moving their money from one company to another, taking support away when its most needed, is utterly ludicrous. A system where a few chaps in blazers in London transfer money when they see their bonuses start to drop, causing a hard working company many miles away to loose several jobs even though they have a full order book, must surely be immoral?
So you might argue that as there are so many people now working in the financial sector that it balances out, when money is tight in industry it must be flowing in the financial sector? Well maybe it does, but the thing I notice is the difference in the way that money is distributed.
I read a report a while ago comparing average wages, I think it said something like average car industry wages were 25k and finance was 36k, or something like that. But the distribution of those wages is dramatically different, many people I have met who work in the city earn less than 20k, normal average office workers, many earn less than 18k and really struggle to pay the bills. The equivalent in the car industry might be factory line workers who earn a basic of about 25k and with usual overtime could be on 35 to 40k, thus allowing them more spare cash to pump back into the economy.
By comparison at the top end of the pay scale things are the other way around, senior managers in the car industry might be on 60k, but their counterpart in finance may be on double that. At director level the difference is even greater, there are no million pound bonuses in the car industry, no seven figure salaries, and all the better for it.
There are two results of this, firstly the car industry benefits more of its employees, the wages are more evenly distributed across the whole workforce and more of the cash finds its way into the local economy. But secondly the car industry is much less appealing to the super rich, the rewards are slimmer for directors, and for investors the dividends are modest.
Over the decades the press has made industry seem grubby and declining which has damaged its image severely, now UK industry is struggling to recruit the people it needs for continued growth because generations of young workers have been put off by the media image, preferring the relative ‘glamour’ of finance.
Career choice at an early age obviously shapes the subjects kids study at school and the exams they take at the end. The media bias has driven huge numbers to study softer subjects, and whilst I have absolutely no objection to anyone taking these subjects we desperately need to rekindle the enthusiasm for learning how to make things, how to design and engineer things, how to turn dreams into tangible working products that people can buy. This mismatch of candidate’s skills and job requirements, coupled with the apathy toward industrial work puts the country in the ridiculous position of having a large pool of unemployed youngsters and an industry being forced to recruit from abroad.
This situation has to change, the notion that an economy can run on the service and financial sectors alone is clearly flawed, how can a country prosper when all it does is sell someone else’s products to its own populous?
Also the idea that we can be solely a ‘knowledge’ economy, where we design stuff but make it elsewhere is idiotic. All that happens is the detailed knowledge of a product gained by actually making it gradually migrates to the place where it is made, all the product knowledge seeps away until the manufacturing area has greater understanding and technical expertise than we do. Then what do we design? ‘For Sale’ signs maybe.
I don’t know what the solution is, but do I know that what I see around me is terribly unfair and inefficient, like a misfiring engine it sort of works some times but keeps stalling at junctions. I think its time this country had a new engine, one driven by selling world class products globally, building real skills and doing useful jobs that benefit everyone.
The world has changed dramatically in the last few years, it is a truly global market place with massive opportunities. It is still in a state of change, but everything is starting to settle in, global players are establishing bases across the world, making networks and building brands that people in every country recognise and desire.
This phase is absolutely critical to long term success, if we miss the opportunities now someone else will definitely take them away. Now is the time to build our industry, just as it is in every country, to make it fit for the new market place. We are already leading in many areas such as luxury cars and motorsport, everyone who cares about the future should push the government to give all our industries a fighting chance by moving red tape, developing a tax system that promotes growth, investing in education and promoting our industry across the globe.
But let’s start by promoting our excellent industry to ourselves, spread the word.
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