My company, Brompton, has grown from a small business of 24 staff to a slightly bigger business with 240 staff by manufacturing our strange-looking folding bicycles. By and large, our work is about taking 1990s manufacturing technology and applying it to a business that is running at 1970s technology. We are not Jaguar Land Rover and we’re not a tech company based in Cambridge.
The big potential for growth in the UK is in the thousands of businesses that employ four or five people. They are nowhere near hi-tech — more like rubbish tech. They have to hoover up the technological crumbs off the tables of Nissan or Triumph and apply them to their own operations. If they manage to stay in business, which many do, then my God, they must have a good product. But many need to optimise their abilities and I think there are missed opportunities there.
When it comes to the single biggest challenge for manufacturing in the UK, to my mind it is a lack of skills. To be honest, what we don’t need is an absolute flood of apprenticeships but we do struggle to find really high-quality and highly qualified design engineers and production engineers. And as a smaller company, we are constantly getting outbid for new staff by Dyson, we are getting outbid by Jaguar Land Rover; we’re getting outbid everywhere and we simply can’t compete.
We also struggle to find women to employ. Half of my market is women, and probably more of the money is spent by women than by men, but everything I make is designed by men. That is a serious problem for us, but it’s not the same everywhere. It isn’t the case in Taiwan, for example, and it isn’t the case in many other parts of the world.
In my opinion, the one thing that the government could do is encourage a voluntary code of conduct to change what ‘engineering’ means. British Gas send round a heating engineer to fix your boiler. The AA send round a mechanical engineer to fix your car. That’s not right, and we need to change the public perception of engineers. In schools, we talk about influencing children at five and six, but the people who are influencing children at the ages of five and six are their parents. So if parents perceive ‘engineering’ as a career to mean becoming a mechanic or a plumber, that doesn’t inspire great career opportunities in our sector. The government could easily do something, and it would cost nothing.
At the moment we have an education system that is not delivering the education that industry needs. Is the answer more university technical colleges, as has been suggested? Not necessarily. In the last ten years the number of people taking design and technology at GCSE has dropped by a half. But GCSE is the perfect time to inspire youngsters. They start playing around with design, they start building, they start realising why they need to learn maths and why physics need not be chronically boring. Subjects like D&T add vast amounts of value. It makes these other subjects more exciting, but its take-up has dropped drastically. So perhaps it’s not about creating new subjects and schools, but delivering what we already have in a better way.
Looking at the great industrial revolution, the greatest minds went into engineering. The entrepreneurs and the people who made all the money were engineers. That simply doesn’t happen today, but I think if we can get more people recognising what the industry really is, we will get more talent.
Whether it’s from apprenticeships, whether it’s from the universities, it doesn’t really matter — we just need to draw in more talent.