This article was originally published in The Yorkshire Post.
A combination of lots of good, new jobs in rival white-collar industries sucking talented people away to work in things like finance or software development, together with a toxic mix of cheap foreign competitors, high energy prices at home and a lingering snobbishness about roles that might involve getting your hands dirty, have all combined to make it a much less fashionable career choice for many of our brightest and best.
Which means we are missing out in a big way, because manufacturing has two enormous advantages over lots of those white-collar desk-jockey industries. The first is that, if you’re already making something that everybody wants, it usually doesn’t cost much extra to make a few more.
The leverage of these economies of scale makes successful manufacturing firms more productive than, for example, a retailer or restaurant chain that has to fit out new buildings and train more staff every time they move into a new town.
And then there’s all the new technologies which make modern, digital manufacturing a genuinely cutting-edge occupation where ideas and trade secrets can make your fortune, build new industries and revive entire communities with the high-paid, high-skill jobs they create.
There’s nothing wrong with all those white-collar jobs, of course, but these two advantages mean that countries with bigger, more successful manufacturing firms can grow faster and create more high-skilled, well-paid jobs than ones which only have service industries in them. And they’re better-equipped to deal with recessions and economic shocks, because if one industry is suffering while another is booming then jobs and investment can move around more easily to minimise the pain.
Even better, manufacturing is a powerful engine for levelling up, because it fills in the gaps in our service-industry-obsessed economy. If the retailers, bankers and software developers aren’t interested setting up shop in a former mill or steel town, it might be just the place for a hi-tech new manufacturing start-up instead, making something that you and I have hardly heard of yet, but which everyone will want next year.
So it creates new opportunities, variety and dynamism outside London and the South East, and uses the talents and abilities of everyone in all parts of the country, rather than just the bottom right-hand corner instead. A manufacturing-rich economy would mean it wouldn’t matter where each of us was born or grew up; our life chances would be equally good everywhere. Our geography wouldn’t dictate our destiny anymore.
None of this is news, of course. It’s the principle which underpinned the wealth and laid the foundations of most of Britain’s industrial towns and cities, making things as diverse as steel, crockery and clothes, from Birmingham to Bradford and back again.
But it’s a truth that we seem to have forgotten for the last 50 years, and we can’t afford to let our collective amnesia last any longer. Manufacturing has to stop being a nostalgic part of Britain’s heritage, with dusty old black-and-white photos of faded glories in local museums. It needs to be a vibrant, modern engine of our future too.
How? We could do worse than starting with the new ’10-point’ plan for boosting manufacturing that’s just been published by the John Mills Institute for Prosperity. It’s trying to forge a new, cross-party consensus about the kinds of big, structural changes to our education system, our economy and our society that will be needed to reverse the long, slow decline of our manufacturing industries.
Turning around 50 years of retreat won’t be easy or quick, of course; we’re going to have to think big and long to create a pro-manufacturing agenda that will outlast individual Parliaments and Governments, so manufacturers can invest for the long term without \u2028worrying that some future politician might move the goalposts part-way through.
Ministers are already making progress in things like building new infrastructure, improving technical education and turbocharging capital investment, but there’s still a long way to go. So perhaps the recommendation that matters most is the last one: be more ambitious!