My heart is in manufacturing, my Dad, worked for many years as a Foreman at British Leyland at Longbridge, home of “red robbo” and the night shift sleeping through the night. Despite all the negative press I was fascinated by “making stuff” and I can still remember one Saturday morning dad took me to work and I worked on the assembly line. Imagine that now, I was not signed in, no health and safety induction, just the gaffers lad and he handed me over to two guys who he could trust to look after me for a few hours.
That was enough to convince me to seek my career in manufacturing and the start of love and loathing of my status as an engineer.
Firstly my friends thought I was mad to go and work in a factory, it was smelly and you only went there if you did not do well at school. I was in fact one of last proper apprentices. No YTS for me, a proper 5 year apprenticeship, signing my self over to Chubb Locks who through a set of “indentures” agreed to train and give me a craft. All good, they looked after me, nurtured me, and told me they wanted me to go and do a degree which I duly did. After 7 years of financial support and a job in holidays and sandwich placements I decided I needed to move on.
Whilst I got fantastic support, they were what was wrong with UK manufacturing at that time. Low investment, poor facilities, poor and ineffective management. I tried to do things differently and I had my supporters but also those who reminded me of my place!
I did the milk road, and amongst a series of job offers I chose Boots. Head office in Nottingham and lured by a ratio of 3 women to every man I decided that was the place to be. (Incidentally, i met my wife on my first day, as we were the first four graduates to arrive!!).
Here my frustrations with being an engineer continued. Job gradings worked against engineers, and my peers in marketing, finance and other disciplines started to acquire higher grades and cars as we were left behind with the promise of exciting and challenging work but not the reward or status in the organisation. My frustration was not helped by people asking me if I fixed my own car! Just cause I have a degree in engineering don’t assume I am interested in cars, I wasn’t then and not now – big chip on my shoulder about that one!
A few more years in senior engineering before I decided, rightly, that my personality and strengths lay in other areas, and people, change and supply chain re engineering beckoned.
So despite my frustrations and up until 10 years ago spending all my time in manufacturing I am really pleased to see the growth of manufacturing again in the UK, and the fact that some of our manufacturing that was shipped abroad is coming back again to these shores. As someone who was involved in off shoring I was a reluctant participant and despite my assertion that it was more than just looking at manufacturing costs, I lost the arguments in my various companies.
So manufacturing is coming back. We have bright and shiny factories popping up rather than the dark satanic mills I experienced and we have a growing interest in engineering amongst school children. Both my boys are curious which is great.
However I am worried as to whether we can sustain the progress.
We have lost maybe 3 generations of skilled apprentices and engineering graduates have found other careers.
But what worries me most, as frustrated me through my career is the engineers status in society. We need to value the work of engineers at all levels, and in particular recognise graduate engineers as much as lawyers, doctors and other professionals. They are in other countries, and we need to pay them accordingly.
We also need to invest in leadership and management, not only to nurture the future as I experienced, but also to collaborate, innovate and keep pushing the manufacturing boundaries. I am afraid I still see some old style management practices in the sector, and if we are to attract and retain the key people we need to up their competence in the people stuff to equal their engineering talents.
Finally, whilst not advocating a manufacturing strategy, I do feel that Government needs to create the environment and climate that nurtures and encourages long term investment in this value adding sector as well as raising the profile and value of engineers in society. Maybe some of the high profile infrastructure projects will help in this area too.
So it’s great to see the growth in manufacturing again. I’m committed to add my voice to see it grow again, and I hope that we work really hard to grow it, and get the recognition in society that is merits and deserves.
I’ve got many things crossed….