British Manufacturing

British Manufacturing

Friday, August 20, 2021

Whatever Happened to British Manufacturing

 How often do we hear the lament that British manufacturing is in decline, that jobs have gone overseas? Great Britain was the workshop of the world. What has happened? In the companion volume, How Britain Created the Manufacturing World, the bold assertion in the book’s title was tested and not found wanting. In Whatever Happened to British Manufacturing, the story since the Festival of Britain of 1951 is explored: the good, the bad and the ugly.

There is much to celebrate in those brands of which this nation was rightly proud; the book takes a trip down memory lane. The stories of what happened to those brands we loved so much are uncovered . Importantly, the assumption of decline is challenged with examples of where Britain still holds its head high in the manufacturing world. It is not a story of gloom; there are some wonderful successes: JCB, Jaguar-Rover, Glaxo and John Harvey-Jones’s ICI from which Astra Zeneca was born, but also Alan Sugar’s Amstrad. There is hope for the future in manufacturing for the green revolution. Manufacturing will probably continue to employ fewer people, but more than offset by British innovation and skill.

The manuscript of How Britain Created the Manufacturing World is now with Pen & Sword in preparation for publication. I heard today that my proposal for Whatever Happened to British Manufacturing has been accepted. I am delighted and look forward to producing a book that is thoroughly positive about modern British manufacturing. 

The University of Lincoln has one of the newest departments of engineering in Britain. 


Thursday, August 19, 2021

Patterns of employment - both now and back to 1851

The jobs that people do change for a host of reasons. In particular, there has been a long term shift since the ends of the 1960s from manufacturing to services. Now, post Covid, a further shift is coming and a Guardian leader encouraged a glance back to Harold Wilson for a guide of how to manage this change.

Looking at headline unemployment in the sixties, it was a steady (and acceptable) 2%. Looking deeper, falling demand for coal meant that around 250,000 mining jobs disappeared in the decade, yet this did not result in an increase in the unemployment percentage. It seems that new jobs were created and people moved. Of course, it wasn't as simple as that, but, with proper attention to re-training and the provision of income in the transition period, changes in employment can be managed. 

Looking at employment in manufacturing over the long term, I was at first surprised by its ebbs and flows. On reflection it begins to make more sense. The graph in the ONS report starts in 1861, but I also have statistics from the earlier census of 1851. The largest manufacturing sector was textiles, which was the main but not the only thrust of the Industrial Revolution. It was though, at one million employees, smaller than agriculture with two million and the same size as domestic service. The role of coal in powering the revolution was crucial. In 1851, it employed two hundred thousand miners well below peak employment at the start of the Great War. 

ONS sector analysis goes back to 1928 when manufacturing employed a quarter of all employees. This was two years before the total employment rate reached an all time low of just 61% of those between 16 and 64. The previous peak figure was 76% in 1872 and the subsequent peak of the same percentage came in 1943. Looking more closely at manufacturing, the interwar years saw the percentage share of manufacturing at around 25%. Post war, with the export drive, this increased to 29% through the fifties and sixties before falling back to 22% by the end of the seventies. The eighties witnessed as further fall to 15% with the nineties coming in at just 10%. 

The ONS also gives figures for the value of output, and here manufacturing does rather better as the benefits of mechanisation are felt. Manufacturing output at the end of the sixties made up 30% of national output, essentially on a par with the share of employment. By the end of the seventies it had fallen to 23% and to 17% at the end of the eighties, just nudging ahead of employment. The nineties saw a fall to 15%, comfortably ahead employment. 

David Edgerton, in his book The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, makes the point that Britain's manufacturing success in the fifties and sixties was laudable; it was just that other countries were doing better. Today, even though productivity has increased, Britain still lags behind nations who have embraced technology more wholeheartedly. In 2014, the website Drives and Controls suggested that in terms of output, manufacturing was then producing as much as it had in the 1970s. The ONS report on which this article was based may be found by following this link

The signs are good, with almost daily announcements of investment in leading edge technology, not least with British manufacturers of both electric and hydrogen powered buses. 

Alexander Dennis and NFI Group


 

Monday, August 16, 2021

Manufacturing Nostalgia

 “I am passionate about British manufacturing.” 

These were the words I heard myself uttering in a shoe shop as I declined to buy a shoe made in India at half the price of one made in Northampton. They were both handmade by wonderful craftsmen; quite possibly the craftsman in Northampton was of Indian extraction. I found myself muttering something about the carbon footprint of the Indian made shoe. 

I walked away from the shop unable to make up my mind, which instead wandered to a graph I had been studying and which depicted the rise and fall of manufacturing employment in this country (fig 2a if you follow this link to the ONS paper). The peak of 30% was in the 1960s, reducing to something like 8% in 2016. (The graph includes in secondary employment both manufacturing and construction, the latter being fairly constant at 8-10%)

What was I seeking to resurrect? Some golden age of manufacturing? The fifties and the sixties are referred to by some as The Golden Age.

Surely not the cotton mills of Victorian times? What about the early steel works? More probably railway workshops or my great grandfather’s surgical instruments business. This thinking led smoothly to Rolls-Royce and hand-built Merlin engines for Spitfires, to handcrafted Humbers whose doors 'opened and closed like the case of a good watch'. But then what about ICI and the plants making Perspex for Spitfire cockpits? This led me via the later wartime production line manufacture of aero engines to the factories in postwar Coventry. 

I remember visiting the dark, noisy Avon Rubber factory in Melksham in the 1970s, and running the gauntlet of rows of women workers in Nottinghamshire textile factories. But then those fading photos of factories at clocking off time and the neighbouring streets flooded with cloth capped figures on bicycles? 

What am I longing for? 

First a reality check. Mechanisation has eliminated many repetitive tasks but also the associated employment. The employment that remains is ever more skilled and fulfilling. 

The moving of labour intensive manufacturing to countries with lower labour costs once seemed attractive. The drawbacks of lack of responsiveness but, more so, the environmental cost surely brings this practice into question. The production of untold tons of cheap cotton or man-made-fibre garments is simply adding to the environmental bill, as are the containers full of cheap plastic toys eating up sea miles en route from China. 

Is my nostalgia turning green?

I do jar when I read a list of air source heating manufacturers and fail to find any made in Britain (I have since unearthed Dimplex but also Kensa who focus on ground source). On the other hand I thrill when my son tells me about British manufacturers of electric and hydrogen powered buses (Dennis , Arrival and Wrightbus. When I visit the Rolls-Royce website, I delight in the story they tell of wonderful engineering that is happening now. I am warmed by anecdotes of companies like JCB who applied their machinery and skills to produce equipment to help the NHS fight COVID. I am warmed by JCB generally as I see yellow tractors and diggers on neighbouring farms, as well as in heavy construction.

On social media there are great champions of British manufacturing and the story they tell is positive and I am thinking of FactoryNOW and The Manufacturer.  

We will not return to manufacturing making up one third of the workforce, but it will continue to contribute significantly to the country's output. Not least with the input of universities such as Lincoln. The whole issue of employment in the 21st century was explored at a symposium with the University.

The timeline of Lincoln Engineering at the celebration of Lincoln Engineering in Lincoln Cathedral

How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World - my starting point

 Today it seems a brave, or even reckless, assertion to suggest that Britain might have shaped the manufacturing world. Yet, looking back th...