These are fascinating times in British industry. Many of those currently working in manufacturing will be unable to remember the last time there was this much focus on the sector from either government or the public.
While we work to promote industry in the UK, it’s never really been off the government’s agenda.
The advent of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the Brexit vote, and now the general election has brought it into a degree of focus that I haven’t seen in decades.
There is a sense of momentum now; since the “Brexit” referendum, we’ve had the announcement of a new industrial strategy through a Green Paper call for input and of wholesale reform to the education system.
People are talking about UK manufacturing again, and that can only be good news.
Importantly, it’s a hot topic at many of the industry focused events and forums that I’ve attended recently, from the Rutberg Summit, where senior executives from many of the world’s leading companies came to London to discuss trends driving global business, to our own Factories of the Future expo in Manchester, which brought industry leaders from across the UK and Europe to discuss the 4th Industrial Revolution.
At the recent IoT World Forum in London hosted by our strategic alliance partner Cisco, our CEO Blake Moret gave a keynote address that moved the IIoT conversation forward to discuss scalable, flexible analytics that increase the insight from IoT technologies.
The main reason I’m so heartened that these topics are being discussed at such a high level in the UK is that the sector is still deeply misunderstood by the general public, and this can only be corrected through more and better dialogue.
The problem is the misconception is that the sector is finding it hard to attract the necessary talent, and the truth is that as we move deeper into the IIoT evolution, the need for a highly skilled workforce will only grow.
People outside of our industry tend to have a pretty clear idea of what working in other sectors of the economy is like, because these are the jobs most people actually do for a living. With around 10% of the UK workforce working in manufacturing, it takes much longer for misconceptions to flush out of the system.
The initiatives that the government has announced in recent months, and the marked upturn in UK-based discussions on the future of industry have already achieved part of their desired effect, and the prominence of manufacturing in the national conversation is likely to grow in the months to come.
So, what else can the government do to help shape the conversation and give people a clearer understanding of modern industry?
One of the biggest flaws in the discussion is the misguided idea that manufacturing roles don’t afford people the social status of roles in other sectors. We still live in an era when well-educated adults can, in good faith, use the idea of working in a factory to scare their children into studying harder at school.
The reality is that there are plenty of people who would find it considerably harder to get a job in a modern factory than a place at a university. This perception will change with time, but we would welcome any effort to promote a more accurate view of manufacturing work to the wider public.
We would also like to see greater cooperation between manufacturers and schools, so that students can see for themselves the reality of the modern manufacturing facility.
Seeing real, useful things being made is inspiring, and the prospects for young people entering the industrial sector are excellent.
Contrary to some popular opinion, industrial automation is creating the kind of jobs people value most highly – well paid, secure and challenging.
The new generation of operational technologists who are increasingly manning manufacturing plants may “work in a factory,” but the reality of their lives is about as far from Dickens’s “dark satanic mills” as it’s possible to be.
But the single most significant thing the government can offer at this moment in history is to do nothing to jeopardise the ability of manufacturers to do what they do best, which is to create much-needed jobs and products.
Attitudes toward industry are changing, and efforts to support this change are very welcome, but they will count for little if the foundations of British prosperity are damaged in the years to come.
Priority number one must be to keep the UK in its current position at the beating heart of global trade and advanced manufacturing.
If they can take care of that then, with time, manufacturers and good sense will take care of the rest.