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Midlands manufacturing must embrace HS2 opportunities and address skills shortages

Industry leaders from manufacturing organisations across the region met at the roundtable event at Hadley Industries in Smethwick to discuss the role of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership (GBSLEP) how local businesses can influence and engage with the Government’s ambitions for the & lsquo;Midlands Engine’ and also how the region’s businesses can ensure they benefit from investment in HS2.

Stewart Towe, group chairman and managing director at Hadley Industries and Board Member of GBSLEP, told the meeting that SMEs were crucial to GBSLEP’s success. He said, “It marks a real sea-change. When it comes to skills development and finance, especially for small business, opportunities of scale should make a real difference. Already, the region has seen a larger fall in unemployment and become the largest attractor of inward investment. There is still a lot to do and we need to deliver better performance, quarter on quarter.”

It was agreed that the & lsquo;Midlands Engine’ would give the region a greater voice on issues impacting on business in the region, such as the & lsquo;unintended consequences’ of the Enterprise Act this allows pre-pack administrations, where companies can go into administration, to dump their creditors and then buy the company back. Mark Wingfield, managing director of A&M edm Limited, explained that The Act was having a real impact on toolmakers in the region. Many have folded as a result of losses caused by pre-packs, especially because of the level of upfront investment they have to make before being paid by their customers.

Joanna Sloane, supply chain manager at HS2, explained how small businesses in the Midlands can get involved in the major infrastructure project, outlining the roadshows which have been held across the UK to inform suppliers of HS2’s values and requirements.  Businesses were advised to read the guidance available on the HS2 website, including the HS2 Supplier Guide and information on forthcoming HS2 contract opportunities.  Businesses were also encouraged to register on CompeteFor, where contract opportunities in the HS2 supply chain will be advertised.   

It was agreed that the major challenge for HS2, and the region as a whole, was the skills gap in engineering. The workforce is either older than 55, or classed as inexperienced, aged below 35 years. Engineers are now earning more than doctors at entry level, but a big gap has emerged this decade as a result of parents discouraging their children from going into engineering in the 1980s and 90s, as well as the drive to get young people into university rather than following a vocational route.

A range of opportunities to address the challenge were discussed, including taking interactive exhibitions and models to schools presenting a modern image of industry that highlights the role of new technologies and materials introducing more flexible working so that skilled women in engineering were not lost to the sector, as well as addressing the growing expectation of a better work-life balance and more investment in training, career development and talent retention initiatives to grow and retain existing skilled staff.

Jonathan Lee, chairman of Jonathan Lee Recruitment, commented, “It was good to hear business leaders from the region acknowledging the need to address the skills gap through training and investment and looking at transferable skills.  This is a message we have been delivering for some time as it is a significant barrier to achieving growth for many local manufacturers.  We are working with SME clients to overcome this pressing problem to make sure that the Midlands can take full advantages of the opportunities ahead.” 

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