Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Of course Britain doesn't make anything any more!


You've all heard it at some point, usually from the grumpy old bloke at the end of the bar.

"There's no manufacturing any more, no proper businesses. Britain doesn't make anything any more"

I suspect that an opinion poll would discover that most Britons share that grumpy old bloke's opinion. And in one respect they're right. We no longer have great big factories teeming with workers. The hooters that mark the start and end of shifts are no longer a feature of every community and children don't finish school on the Friday and start at the mill on Monday.

But the real truth is that Britain does make stuff - really important stuff that's tomorrow's technology. And it employs lots of people.

About one-quarter of the world’s commercial communication satellites are built in Britain and 40% of the world’s small satellites. Most of those are built by Airbus’s Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL), the world leader in the field. It has launched 43 satellites since it was started by an academic at Surrey University, Sir Martin Sweeting. The whole space sector directly employs 35,000 people, and the supply-chain accounts for thousands more jobs. London-based Inmarsat is one of the world’s largest satellite operators, specialising in mobile telephony. The space sector has a turnover of about £11 billion a year.

The problem is that modern manufacturing isn't like that old manufacturing, it doesn't employ thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled people. Instead it employs technicians with in-demand skills, engineers and scientists with higher degrees. Today's manufacturing employee is more likely to drive to work in a BMW from a four-bed detached house than to walk there in dungarees carrying a lunch box. I visited one manufacturer - in Oldham, at the heart of the old manufacturing world - where three-quarters of the workforce had a degree including 54 with a PhD.

So what the grumpy bloke at the bar is bemoaning isn't the loss of manufacturing but the loss of the low-skill, low paid unionised manufacturing jobs of times past. Britain still makes stuff - a bewildering variety of stuff from satellites to sugar, from cars to coffee - but it doesn't use millions of workers to do the making. And the problem we have, especially in places like Bradford, is we produce too many people who lack the skills to do modern manufacturing. There are plenty of reasons for this but one thought expressed to me recently was interesting - worth exploring. It was that our education system was designed for that old world, for the production of industrial cannon fodder and a small elite of managers.

We sort of recognised this - Blair's misplaced call for half of young people to go to university reflects the desire to equip people with the skills modern industry needs. And while this failed, turning out too many degrees in tourism studies and too few in engineering, it was a first step in a long road to a system that really does provide for tomorrow's workforce. This isn't the sort of Ken Robinson nonsense about how schools are a bad thing but rather the need to reconsider what the consumers of education - parents and their children - demand. And, for all the cant about creativity, what people want from education is a system that helps children get the knowledge and skills allowing them access to good quality, well-paid employment.


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