It would take a brave person to make firm predictions for 2017.
Who would have thought this time last year that the UK would vote to leave the EU, that the U.S. would elect Donald Trump to the Oval Office and that Nico Rosberg would win the World Championship for the UK-based Mercedes F1 team and then retire a few days later!
Whatever our feelings of jubilation or trepidation at the prospects thrown up by a year characterised by significant change, I am sure that here in the UK 2017 will provide more than its fair share of fresh surprises while it adapts to those we’ve already seen.
And adapt we will! We’re actually very good at it, and flexibility may be the watchword for the year ahead.
So it’s with a note of cautious optimism that we (belatedly) welcome in 2017 – perhaps ‘steady as she goes’ best sums up the mood amongst the industrial leaders I speak to here.
As Brexit negotiations and realities begin to have more and more of an effect, the change in the value of Sterling is making the environment more challenging for many in industry and more positive ]for others. Meanwhile, the influence of global trends will also continue into the year ahead.
The revelations about the extent of the hacking of Yahoo have brought issues around network security into sharp focus – most keenly observed by Mr. Jim Labonty of Pfizer in his excellent address at Automation Fair last fall, when he revealed that the company face around a million attacks on their network every single day.
Hackers only need to get ‘lucky’ once, and it’s only by dedicating resource and taking a defence-in-depth approach that UK industry can rise to meet this global challenge.
Similarly, in the news recently Bank of England Governor Mark Carney made headlines when addressing the UK’s future jobs market and the threat that automation provides to the workforce.
While Carney was making a broader point about traditional sectors such as accountancy being superseded by software capabilities, and up to 15 million UK jobs being potentially under threat, the general automation point is one we know well from the industrial sector, which has seen consistent falls in low-skilled employment for many years.
Protecting the UK from global forces and the digital revolution simply isn’t feasible, and the observation that more automated industrial economies employ more people because they are more competitive remains as relevant as ever.
In fact, it’s a point discussed in the ‘From Brawn to Brains’ research by Deloitte, which paints a fuller understanding of the effects of technology on the workforce – observing that although 800,000 lower-skilled jobs have been lost to the UK, the technology has helped create nearly three and a half million skilled ones in their place.
It also estimates that these jobs pay an average of £10,000 more per annum and have added £140 billion to the UK economy in new wages.
The fact is that for UK industry to remain sustainable and to grow, it must continue to invest in world-class manufacturing methods. A key consideration for safeguarding industrial employment is understanding the types of jobs that are going to be available in industry.
There remains the need to address a skills shortage for the next generation of the workface through STEM initiatives at schools and to offer flexible further education that will allow young people to pursue a career in modern industry.
To that end, the announcement of the UK Industrial Strategy Green Paper in late January is very welcome. It is particularly good to see the attention and importance of STEM and skills development.
Continued investment in upskilling the existing workforce so that they can fulfill the needs of today’s industrial environment is at the heart of a comprehensive and forward looking approach.
There's no doubt in my mind that only by taking the lead on such issues will the UK maintain a competitive and sustainable industrial sector in the face of fierce global competition.
In 2017, UK industry needs to chart a course through skills issues, Brexit maneuvers and global trends, and there’s every reason to believe it is more than capable of doing just that.
My stoic optimism is best evidenced by the UK automotive industry.
Car manufacture has long been held up as a guide to the overall health of UK industry and companies such as Jaguar Land Rover are continuing to invest in world-class facilities and seeing gains in efficiency, productivity and a steady rise in profits as a result.
This is no fluke and demonstrates that the UK is capable of doing much more than just keeping its head above water.
So, while we may have to navigate some choppy waters in 2017, there’s no reason to think that the UK won’t continue do what it’s always done – that’s work hard and come up with great products and services that the rest of the world wants to buy.
And while I’m reluctant to be drawn on any specific promises about UK industry in 2017, I am willing to go on the record and say that I think it’ll be Lewis Hamilton who ends the year as F1 World Champion in his British-made Mercedes.
The details of whatever else happens between now and November’s title decider are anyone’s guess, but you can hold me to this one!