The topic’s pervading importance was clear from the start of the EEF National Manufacturing Conference in Westminster today, with a giant projected cartoon showing delegates running for the door as a speaker breached the subject.
“Members tell me the most important things on their minds include skills, number one, normally skills number two and number three as well,” said EEF chief executive Stephen Phipson early on. But, he quickly added, manufacturers are “of course” worried about preparations for leaving the EU and what that means for their businesses.
“Over the past 12 months, the political landscape in particular has altered more than anyone could have predicted,” he said, referring to a tumultuous year including Theresa May’s failed general election gamble and widespread frustration with a perceived lack of leadership in Brexit negotiations.
“None of us thought we would be here and I think the complexities and the complications around what it means to exit the EU are becoming clear.”
A “host” of Brexit-related risks could affect manufacturers, he said, relating to the transition period, regulation and ongoing access to EU workers.
“Despite all these risks, the great thing about this sector is it can actually adapt and change, and it can develop a lot of optimism about the future,” said Phipson. One person painting an optimistic picture was Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox.
Giving a speech – but not a Q&A session, to the vocal disappointment of some present – the MP highlighted a high-tech and specialised manufacturing sector with good productivity. Diverse sectors including aerospace and automotive are doing well, he said, with companies such as Airbus showing confidence in the UK with the opening of new centres.
British manufacturers can trade with more than just the EU, he added: “Already we are laying the groundwork for new trading relationships with countries across Africa and Asia. Many of these countries’ economies will be the drivers of global growth in the 21st century.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn followed after lunch, with a diverse speech highlighting his family’s engineering past and pledging a focus on infrastructure investments, vocational and early education in engineering, the economic and social importance of getting more women into engineering, and the issue of rampant speculative finance.
Moving on to the principal topic of the day, he said the Conservatives’ approach to Brexit – which has been accompanied by a big drop in net migration – “threatens to turn our skills crisis into a catastrophe,” especially for manufacturers that rely on recruiting skilled workers from overseas. Labour recognises the importance of ongoing movement to providing companies with the workers they need, he added.
Responding to questions, the pro-Brexit MP said manufacturers must still have access to European markets in future, with a customs union particularly important for Irish trade.
The event, subtitled “Global Britain,” had a proactive schedule determined to counter potential negative effects from Brexit. The agenda included workshops on supporting and sustaining post-Brexit workforces and how to minimise “trading friction” with the EU, and speakers frequently offered thoughts on how to innovate and sustain high productivity.
Other workshops focused on cyber security, smart energy and the importance of steel in a low-carbon world. Despite industry concerns, speakers frequently acknowledged the manufacturing sector as a “bright spot” amid an otherwise gloomy national economic outlook.
Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.