Business

Are we jumping to a rebuild rather than attempting a manufacturing rescue?

Who would you call if your home caught fire? The Fire Service or a building firm?
Stephen Kelly

IF you were unlucky enough to risk losing your home due to a horrible fire, who would you call first? The fire service or the builders?

Well, in this past week we see that some believe it may not be worth saving the remains of your home and your hard earned possessions and, without debate, we are jumping to a rebuild rather than attempting any further rescue.

Extrapolating from our surveying and from Invest NI’s client company interviews, we see that one in three manufacturing jobs are either redundant, notified as at risk of redundancy or still on furlough. That’s some 30,000 direct jobs in the sector gone or at risk with the resulting damage to indirect jobs which manufacturing delivers more than other sectors. These jobs, mainly in regional towns and villages, form the supply chains of larger exporters and are the backbone of very local economies and communities.

Successful economy department bids for Executive funding last week are either directed at other sectors, some getting their second or more piece of the cake, or towards a medium and long term economic rebuild.

Of course these aren’t wasted investments, because all sectors, all jobs and an eye to the future is important. However, you only have to look around to see that where manufacturing prospers the rest of the economy rises too.

But those 30,000 families depending on a manufacturing wage won’t be enjoying a winter weekend away with a £50 voucher from the Executive, but may instead spend it worrying about how they’re going to pay their home heating bill.

External sales of goods by local companies were estimated to be worth £15.2 billion (70 per cent of the total) in 2018. For a small regional economy like ours, we depend on our manufacturers for this external income to support the rest of the economy. What we make and sell brings in more income than the Stormont Executive gets as a subvention from London.

Last Thursday the Chancellor launched his winter package of support. There is plenty there if manufacturers want to take on more debt. But the showpiece replacement for the furlough scheme falls far short of providing the safety net for many at risk of losing their jobs.

The clue is in the name. The Chancellor has moved from the Job Retention to the Job Support Scheme. This isn’t about getting those currently on furlough back to work but offering limited support for firms with struggling demand over the coming month to keep employees who are now back in work.

The target is set. Those 30,000 jobs at risk is simply unacceptable and must be reduced. That must be the collective challenge of both our manufacturing leaders, our politicians and public servants. Of course the Executive, with trade unions and others, must push the UK to support global manufacturing sectors such as aerospace and automotive, but it is within their gift to rescue our local SME manufacturing community.

Both the chancellor and our economy department seem intent on supporting the undefined ‘vulnerable but viable’ businesses, but there is little evidence globally that government is good at picking winners. Writing off some sectors, businesses or jobs should trouble us all and be subject to challenge.

Our collective response must be to deliver practical, timely action. It’s not too late to save some of our prized possessions.

Stephen Kelly (stephenkelly@manufacturingni.org) is chief executive of Manufacturing NI (www.manufacturingni.org). Twitter: @ManufacturingNI

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