Why work in manufacturing?
The variety of work available is unbeatable
You might sometimes hear people say Britain doesn’t make anything anymore. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The days of cotton mills and smoky factories turning out cheap goods have gone but in their place are a new generation of high-tech facilities that produce everything from the world’s most advanced aeroplanes to life-saving medicines, from huge blocks of steel to the most complex electronic devices imaginable.
It’s a great time for British manufacturing
After falling somewhat out of fashion, the UK manufacturing industry has become increasingly popular with politicians in recent years, who’ve realised the sector generates as much money as the financial services industry. As a result we’re seeing more support for manufacturing and a bigger push for investment.
This will help create better and more secure job prospects, as well as new facilities, technology and loads of exciting research and development opportunities for young engineers to get stuck into. The UK already boasts seven advanced manufacturing research facilities under the government’s Catapult programme that bring together companies and universities to create the manufacturing techniques of tomorrow.
The industry is desperate for more engineers
British factories need a legion of smart, young engineers to help them make use of the latest robotic, internet-enabled production technologies. Two-thirds of British manufacturing firms plan to hire engineering graduates over the next three years and four out of five say they are struggling to recruit. This is helping to push up salaries in the industry (which are already higher on average than in the economy as a whole) faster than in other sectors.
So what does Britain manufacture?
Pretty much everything you can think of. Some of the biggest areas of UK manufacturing are automotive , aerospace , chemicals , pharmaceuticals , and food and drink, and we’ve produced separate career guides to each of these sectors.
But for all the publicity about the success of Britain’s car and plane-makers, the country’s biggest manufacturing export is actually mechanical and electrical equipment, which made £66.2bn for the UK last year. There’s also a substantial amount of work in metal products and even a significant electronics sector producing some of the most innovative computer products on the planet.
Mechanical and electrical equipment is a very broad category but includes much of the technology that generates and supplies power to homes and businesses, as well as the machine tools and factory components that underpin the advanced manufacturing capability of the rest of the industry – including exciting innovations such as 3D printers.
Britain is home to numerous outposts of multinational equipment manufacturers, including the likes of Siemens (which builds – among other things – gas turbines, subsea infrastructure and factory automation equipment in the UK), Bosch (power tools, hydraulic and electric drives) and Eaton (electricity grid equipment, aerospace power systems).
There are also several major machine tool firms in Britian, including Japan’s Mazak and the UK’s own Renishaw, which kits out labs and factories with complex metrology, scientific and advanced manufacturing equipment including 3D printers.
Despite the well-publicised closure of many of Britain’s steelworks, companies like Tata Steel and Sheffield Forgemasters still make a major impact. In fact over 20% of all UK manufacturing firms operate in the metal product sector. They rely on high-tech engineering to turn out a range of products that form the basis of buildings, car chassis and even nuclear reactors, in a way that can compete with the low-cost, cruder manufacturing of other countries.
‘The sector has a lot of unique kit that you won’t have the chance to work on elsewhere,’ says Tata talent resourcing consultant Ben Short. ‘Our work goes right from the blast furnaces to the finished products, from girders for something like the Wembley arch through to sports car gearboxes. And there’s nothing else like seeing the molten steel come out of the process.’
And it’s not just steel: British companies are also expert in producing high-grade aluminium, alloys, and even more advanced materials such as carbon fibre composites.
Components for every other industry
The UK also boasts a legion of small and medium-sized manufacturers that provide components across the UK’s supply chains, offering the chance to work for multiple sectors – from aerospace to motorsport to renewable energy – while specialising in a single technology.
Some of these firms, such as JJ Churchill and Hydram, also take on contract work for the world-class firms like Rolls-Royce, collaborating closely with their partners on a variety of long and short-term projects and relying on their ability to offer the latest manufacturing technologies and techniques.
Is the sector just for manufacturing engineers?
Absolutely not. Manufacturing, production and process engineers are, of course, vital for their ability to design and build the factory systems that keep these companies operating. In a high-wage country like Britain, the only way for manufacturing firms to compete is by using cutting-edge technology to produce the best-quality products.
But this requires a huge range of expertise, from robotics specialists to help develop the most efficient automated factories to the highly sought-after electrical engineers that can reduce energy usage, cut fuel bills and reduce CO2 emissions. Chemical engineers are also particularly desired by companies that manufacture metal products or make heavy use of coatings.
Another big area of demand is in software engineering, among both machine tool companies who need their equipment programmed and dedicated UK manufacturing software companies like Vero, Driveworks and Delcam.
And where are the jobs?
Manufacturing can be found pretty much everywhere in the UK, not just in the North of England and Midlands as per the stereotypes. In fact over a quarter of all British manufacturing is done in London and the greater South East – although the North West of England has the single biggest regional base.
Sheffield was long famous for its steel and Yorkshire is still a major centre for metal products, machine tools and other manufacturing. There are also still major steel operations in both South Wales and Deeside in the north of the country.
Contract and component manufacturers often cluster around centres for different industries, for example in the West Midlands for the automotive sector. But you’ll also find major companies’ individual facilities located away from big urban centres, for example Renishaw in Gloucesterhire or Siemens’ subsea equipment plant in Cumbria.
If you want the inside track on engineering jobs in other industries, take a look at our full list of sector guides.