Spread the good news

Another year, another strategy for manufacturing. In the midst of a global economic slowdown, with the wolves of recession snapping at its heels, it probably isn’t a bad time for the government to set out what it can do to help the UK’s industrial base.

Compared to the scale of the challenges and the threats facing industry, that help may be limited but, as one of our more successful non-manufacturing companies is fond of saying, every little helps.

In fairness there is nothing in the new manufacturing strategy to take exception to and it has met with a generally positive reaction from the bodies representing businesses in the sector.

Some of the proposals make you wonder why they were not brought forward earlier.

Setting up an organisation dedicated to raising the image of manufacturing, for example, is a relatively inexpensive use of public money that could — if it does its job well — pay dividends.

The new body will be called Manufacturing Insight (the government should be commended for resisting the temptation to name it Making a Difference) and will set out to change public perceptions of the sector.

At first sight this type of thing can look like a gimmick, but it has proved effective for other sectors of the economy whose stock plunged a lot lower than manufacturing’s ever has or is likely to.

The UK’s meat and livestock industry, for example, has at various times over the last decade been a stalwart of the 10 o’clock news for the following reasons: degenerative brain disease in humans; import bans by nations too terrified to touch its products; enforced closure of the countryside at massive cost to GDP; funeral pyres of dead animals burning by the motorway.

In the face of this toxic mixture, the relentless efforts of the various bodies responsible for promoting the industry have contributed in no small measure to its survival (think jolly, ruddy-faced butchers, kindly farmers and wholesome, celebrity-endorsed recipes).

By comparison, manufacturing’s bid to counter impressions it is somewhat dowdy and old fashioned appears rather less of a challenge.

Call it spin if you want to, but perhaps it is more accurate to describe it as playing the game. And let’s face it, manufacturing has a pretty good story to tell these days.

Compared to our once seemingly invincible financial services industry, which we now see laid low by the US mortgage system, manufacturing, and the engineering/technology sector in general, looks like the house built on rock rather than sand.

The stakes are high because UK manufacturing is going to need a lot of extra people — and highly skilled ones at that — to stay competitive.

It is vital to challenge the image of manufacturing as a Victorian hangover with no relevance to the future economy.

Any help from the government to that end is welcome but the whole sector, and everyone involved with it, will have to do its bit.

Andrew Lee, editor