It’s a bad week for engineering in the UK. Large-scale job losses at BAE Systems, the country’s biggest engineering employer — and, therefore, seen as the safest — haven’t come as a shock. They’ve been on the cards since the government’s defence review. But the sheer number of jobs which the company says will ‘potentially’ be lost is still striking. Three thousand people, mostly in the company’s Military Air and Information division: this includes some of the most highly skilled people in the country, in a sector which for much of the past decade has been complaining about skills shortages. It’s hardly encouraging for those students starting engineering courses next week.
The issue is worldwide; it’s not just the UK which is cutting defence spending. Even the mighty US, never a country to shy away from spending on weapons, is being forced to cut back by the ongoing aftershocks of the financial crash of 2008. Among the programmes being scaled back is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which of course also affects BAE Systems, one of the project partners, which is cutting staff at its F35 engineering centre in Samlesbury, one of its hardest hit locations and one of the country’s highest-tech production facilities.
Are BAE’s job cuts short-sighted? The company says that it simply has no choice; that it cannot afford to pay staff for whom there is insufficient work, and that it must cut costs. But it says that it is cutting costs to ensure that it is in ‘the best possible position to win future business,’ in the words of chief executive Ian King.
When and if it does win back that business, who is it going to hire to carry out the engineering? The same people it’s about to make redundant? A new generation, who may well be wary about what happened to their predecessors? How is it going to maintain hard-won skills?
It’s a tricky decision for a company facing hard times, and as we’ve said often, The Engineer staff aren’t economists. But for a company which has been at the forefront of the complaints about skills shortages and the promotion of engineering as a career in a growing industry with good prospects, the signal this round of job losses sends is dismal, to say the least.
In the defence sector, at least, the main customer is the government, so it’s obvious that the government has a role to play here. The CBI’s director-general, Neil Bentley, has called on David Cameron to publish its Defence White Paper at the earliest opportunity, ‘so that companies across the defence supply chain can plan with confidence and choose to invest here.’ Engineers and their families will surely agree with him.