Speaking at EEF, The Manufacturers’ Organisation Annual Dinner this evening (Tuesday 20th February), EEF Chair Dame Judith Hackitt, said:
My Lords, Ladies & Gentlemen, members of EEF, our sponsors, and all our guests it is my great pleasure to welcome you this evening, following on from today’s conference.
I am also delighted to welcome our two guest speakers.
The Business Secretary, Greg Clark, is our Guest of Honour. Greg has been an MP since 2005 and has held a number of Government positions before being appointed Business Secretary in 2016. During his tenure he has been responsible for launching the first Industrial Strategy in decades, something that would have been hard to conceive just a few years ago and I would like to applaud you and your department for doing so.
Our after dinner speaker is the broadcaster and author Jeremy Vine, whose show on Radio 2 is the most listened to current affairs programme. Jeremy has won numerous broadcasting awards but I’d imagine possibly your most daunting challenge was appearing on Strictly Come Dancing which I’m sure many of us would have seen.
You are both very welcome.
I am especially delighted to speak this year as our sector is in rude health on the back of growing world markets and performing better than the economy overall as a result. We do face a number of challenges, however.
When I concluded my speech last year I finished by saying that in twelve months’ time I wanted to see three things. Clarity on our future relationship with the EU, the publication of a new industrial strategy and continued efforts to encourage young people to enter our sector.
One year on, two out of three isn’t bad, I suppose!
To be fair to Government, negotiations on exiting the EU were always going to be complex. We must now make Brexit work and minimise uncertainty for everyone, especially for business and industry who will be the driving forces behind a prosperous economy.
Ultimately we need clarity and certainty. What manufacturers in the UK and the EU have made clear is we can’t have confusion. We must avoid new trade barriers, complex customs arrangements, or vastly different regulatory environments.
Secretary of State, I cannot stress enough the urgency with which we need clarity on any transition deal.
It is also essential that business is closely involved in negotiations from now on. Negotiators need to understand the implications of their actions on Britain’s manufacturers. We are not asking for a seat at the negotiating table but we must have a place in the wings providing up to the minute input as negotiations proceed.
At the same time, access to people with the right skills is critical for companies. Government must lead on making the public case that while industry recognises broader public concerns over immigration, companies still need access to the skills at all levels which EU workers currently provide and which cannot be backfilled easily in the short or medium term.
The last year has also seen the launch of a comprehensive Industrial Strategy. This is a welcome development, championed as it is by the Prime Minister who gave a commitment to such a strategy when she became party leader. It contains positive individual measures and an emphasis on the role of manufacturing, with welcome commitments on infrastructure and innovation. We also strongly applaud the commitment to match our competitor nation’s investment in R&D as a percentage of GDP.
Last year I also referred to the need for more young people to enter our sector. In the era of the fourth industrial revolution and increasing digitisation, our future workforce will need very different skills. Our sector will depend on these higher level skills and it is essential that we present an image as a sector that attracts young people, particularly young women, and highlights the incredible opportunities available.
2018 is the Year of Engineering, an initiative that we in EEF are delighted to support, working with young people, their parents and teachers.
I would urge you all to give your support by showcasing all that is great about engineering and manufacturing. We will be campaigning through the year and I encourage you all to share your experiences on EEF’s social media platforms to inspire the next generation of future leaders, innovators, creators and makers.
Whilst we are on the subject of skills I cannot let the opportunity pass without raising the Apprentice Levy. As you know Secretary of State, our sector is wholly committed to high quality Apprenticeships. We in EEF have our own state of the art training centre in which we’ve invested significant sums and which the Prime Minister and Chancellor visited recently and we want to establish more centres around the country.
But whilst the Levy has laudable aims, its impact on employers has been disastrous. It is complex, companies are unable to access their funds, and many view it as another tax on business. As a result, we have seen new starts collapse, with many companies postponing or halting apprenticeships. A win-win has become a lose-lose. Some employers are near breaking point and Government must now listen to what EEF has long said and rethink the entire levy system from top to bottom.
Turning to EEF, just as Government is adopting a new strategy for changing times then so are we. Over the last year we have undertaken a Strategic review and implemented a process of modernisation. As a result, in addition to our well respected HR & Legal and Health & Safety expertise we have identified new areas where we can offer more valuable support to manufacturers.
These include areas such as Brexit, trade policy and the rapidly evolving threat from cyber security, which will be of particular help for SMEs.
We are also supporting this improved service to members with an online network which is facilitating rapid knowledge and best practice sharing, as well as determining hot topics where support and guidance is needed.
Our world class Technology training centre which will be training almost 1000 apprentices for high value roles in Manufacturing is a model which we will build on to support manufacturers and their supply chains. Having invested significantly in this facility, we are exploring potential opportunities to replicate it elsewhere. We are committed to EEF becoming a National Champion for apprentices.
I began my speech by reflecting on how much has happened in the last year and the political, economic and technological challenges we face.
We are committed to continuing to make ourselves fit for purpose for the needs of modern manufacturing companies in the 21st century and to helping all of you to steer your way through this turbulent journey which we face in the coming years.
In particular the pace of technological change is ever more rapid, with digitisation set to change how we work and live.
But I don’t see this as a threat. Far from it. I see it as an opportunity and one we should embrace with open arms because it means science and engineering will be at the heart of everyday life. It will be the solution to many of the challenges we face such as climate change and how we maintain the quality of life for an ageing population.
Manufacturing has a huge amount to be positive about. We know there are challenges ahead but EEF is here to support its members and to work with Government to turn all of those challenges into opportunities for UK manufacturing to be even more successful.