In the fifth episode of Talking Manufacturing, Emma Lewell-Buck, Labour MP for South Shields, talks about why education and upskilling is so essential for the manufacturing industry and for the UK economy as a whole.
Focusing on the second pledge of the JMI Manifesto released in 2021, Emma Lewell-Buck and host Brendan Chilton talk about how neglecting education has damaged the manufacturing sector and how this can be changed.
Lewell-Buck discusses why manufacturing is so important to her constituency and the links she has observed between deindustrialisation and falling apprenticeships, putting an end to generations of work in the mining and shipbuilding industries. She also touches on how manufacturing must adapt to more sustainable practices, the role of the cost-of-living crisis, and how the government’s inaction is worsening the outlook for the industry.
You can listen to the episode below. Episodes will be released monthly, so be sure to follow the podcast to be notified.
Brendan (B): Hello and welcome to the JMI Podcast. My name is Brendan Chilton and I'm the director of the John Mills Institute for Prosperity, and in this series we are going to be discussing the issues at the heart of the Institute, working through each of our manifesto pledges and inviting guests to bring their unique perspective on the place manufacturing takes in the UK economy, and in our society as a whole.
In this episode we'll be talking about another key pillar of the Institute's manifesto: education. If we want to shape the future of our country, we need to start with the future generation, equipping them with the skills that they need. The skills shortage among adults is making it harder than ever for manufacturers to hire the people they need, so how can education help solve this shortage and make working in the industry an attractive option for today's young people?
Joining us on that mission today is Emma Lewell-Buck, the MP for South Shields and a key advocate of levelling up. She is the co-chair of the Child of the North All Party Parliamentary Group, and has campaigned for several years on the need to improve food security. Welcome, Emma.
Emma (E): Morning!
B: So, let's start off then, Emma, with why you are part of the Institute for Prosperity. So, coming from South Shields, it's an area that has a strong history in the manufacturing industry, could you just tell us a bit more about why it's important to you and to your constituents?
E: Yeah, I mean my area, South Shields, is known for its history of mines and shipbuilding and the hard graft that's associated with making and building things — it's in our DNA and it's in our blood, that's how everyone used to make a living. And what we've seen through deindustrialisation is that those jobs disappeared and then what replaced them was service industry jobs.
But then you've got all these people with these amazing skill sets that haven't been able to pass on those skills to anyone because there's been a lack of investment in manufacturing, and in those industries where people build and make things again. In every single North East local authority since 2010, there's been a 50% decrease in apprenticeships, in engineering and in manufacturing technologies. That can't be right, and what we're going to end up with is that all those skills will be lost because the generations, like my dad, my grandad, and my uncles, they're moving on and they're not able to pass those skills on to anyone, and I think that's such a shame.
B: It's unfortunately a story not just in the North East but across the Midlands, and whole great areas in this country, where industry was alive and well. And I've been to South Shields, and I've seen on the river where all the shipbuilding yards were.
In terms of the service industries that moved in: have they really replaced those industries, in the sense that, in the past, shipbuilding mines employed thousands of people? But those service industries that have replaced them, they don't really accommodate the same number of workers.
So, is unemployment, Emma, in your area, a big problem as a result of deindustrialisation?
E: Absolutely, and a lot of the service industry jobs and hospitality industry, that's providing work — we're a seaside, coastal town, but those jobs, a lot of them are seasonal, they're zero hours contracts, they're not highly paid jobs.
What we're trying to do though, is, you mentioned along the river, how you used to see where all the shipyards were; I've worked closely with our Port of Tyne and the local authority, and we are now leading the way in green technology with being the base for what's going be the biggest offshore wind farm in the world, at Dogger Bank. So, we're trying to invest in the new technologies and the green technologies still, coming forward.
But, for that we need a government that's supportive, and I don't know if you can remember in the Levelling Up bill debates, I tried to introduce an amendment there to hold the government to account to measure manufacturing outcomes, creation of new factories and creation of apprenticeships in areas that need it most, like mine, like the Midlands.
But the government kicked back on that. This is the same government who keep ripping up their own industrial strategies. We're just getting the same tired, old ideas from government and it's not even in the prime minister's five priorities — nowhere is manufacturing or investment in skills mentioned.
B: It is absolutely extraordinary, and as you say, that whole area there in your constituency is ripe for that kind of investment to make those wind farms and other green technologies that we need. And it just seems to me amazing that we don't have an industrial strategy with manufacturing at its centre.
And one of the key things, of course, as we said in the intro, was the education aspect, and you've been pushing for better education for children since you joined Parliament, I think in 2013?
E: It is coming up to 10 years, yes.
B: How do you think we can get the education, educate the children in the sort of practical skills needed for jobs in manufacturing? I mean, at the moment do you think government is doing enough to make going into manufacturing a viable career option for young people?
E: I don't think so, but there's problems isn't there, around the apprenticeship levy as well, so, you know, employers will tell me that it's inflexible, that two years isn't enough. So, they could do some reforms to the apprenticeship levy.
But then it's also about making sure that there's that connection with schools where there's people going in and saying "look, you know, these are the jobs that you could go into". And making sure, though, that those jobs are well paid as well, because if somebody can earn more money elsewhere then they will take that money elsewhere, won't they?
So, I've heard an example that some of the apprenticeships, they're on quite a low wage, and they can earn more money perhaps stacking shelves somewhere. Whilst there's nothing wrong with stacking shelves in a supermarket, I've done it before myself, it's not investing in that skillset for the future in those industrial manufacturing jobs that we need.
So, it's about making sure that people have decent pay and that the apprenticeship levy, the issues with it are ironed out, but then also about having role models for children. When I was younger, everyone knew someone who worked in manufacturing or who worked in industry, all my friends at school did. So, you were constantly surrounded by it, and at one point I wanted to be a welder myself, you know, until my dad told us how it wasn't the cleanest of jobs and that I should try something else. But, you know, now those jobs are clean, they're all in green energy.
I've been around factories now where welding is being done and I can't believe the difference, there's not a bit of dust anywhere. So, there are these jobs there but it's about selling them to young people and letting them know that they could actually have a really skilled and varied career in manufacturing and industry.
B: I think that's a really pertinent point, we went to a factory not too far from you, in Wakefield, not so long ago, and I was absolutely amazed because when you think of factories and industry, you think of slightly dirty, big warehouses, you know, quite smelly. But actually, sparkling clean — I would've been happy to eat my dinner off the floor in these factories!
E: Yeah, I was in a shipyard recently and I looked around and I remembered when I was little my dad used to come home and, he used to be what we called ‘hacky’, and he wasn't allowed to sit on the settee unless he put newspaper down because he was so dirty. And now you see them wandering around, their overalls are clean.
B: I think part of it is automation and that sort of thing. It takes that sort of direct interaction between the labourer and, if you like, the muck. It's more remote because machines are doing it and people are now operating the machines, which is something that investment in automation and machinery, we need to increase it in this country.
B: I mean, I know you do a lot with schools in your area. When you go round, is manufacturing on the agenda, is it something that excites them? Or are they all looking at lawyers, doctors, teachers, that sort of thing?
E: To be honest, it doesn't come up much at all. I don't know if you're aware, but I'm on our Defence Select Committee, so it's something that I often talk to business and industry about and saying "can you come into some of my local schools? Can you talk to some of the young people?". Because we do have an industrial skills shortage, and in defence you need a steady drumbeat of work so you can have that skills retention and increase that social value.
And I don't know if you saw, there was a report out from Prospect Union just earlier this week saying that the government need to basically do what Labour's promised – design, build and buy more military equipment in Britain, instead of taking off the shelf from elsewhere.
B: I think you mentioned there the skills gap, and we've obviously focused a lot on young people, but it's also a problem for adults that have been working for decades in a specific industry. That industry's now gone, or automation has meant that their job is no longer required. So, they might be lacking, you know, up to date knowledge on the latest technologies, or in some cases, some basic skills like numeracy and literacy.
Does the government at the moment have a plan for tackling that? I mean, is there anything that we could do immediately to tackle that skill shortage in adults?
E: I mean, it's about supporting people in the right way, isn't it? So, I've never met anybody who is unemployed and is happy about it. I was unemployed once myself, I had to go to night class to get my maths GCSE, and I had to do that all off my own bat, there was no help or support there.
And I think that can be tough when you're studying, you're holding down a job, you're trying to get on with the day-to-day, it just feels like the government makes everything twice as hard as it needs to be, when actually there's people out there who are hungry for skills and hungry for work, want to earn a living and want to contribute to the local economy.
You know, the cost-of-living crisis is just battering people, it's weakened our public services and it's had a knock-on effect for businesses and industry. But yet there are people out there who want to work and want those skills, and it's about how do you get the government to support that in a way where people aren't having to fork out the money and do it for themselves.
B: Yeah, because I think the costs of courses in this country — I mean, I've been looking personally at German classes, not at all useful to the growing economy, but, you know, the cost of a course now is huge. And so, a lot of people, particularly as you say at the moment, haven't got that disposable income.
I want to just jump if I can. So, you mentioned the work of the Defence Select Committee, you know, the need to make more tanks, guns, bullets here in the UK as opposed to making them from abroad. Do you think at the moment we've got the infrastructure, the plants, the factories, et cetera, to do that here in the UK?
E: I think if you look at some of the work that some of the defence primes are doing and the SMEs, they're building those, so when they're getting the contracts from government, they're building that capability and they're building the yards again, they're building apprenticeship academies.
So, if you give industry the contracts and they know they're going to get a steady drumbeat, then they will invest and they will build that infrastructure and they will train people. But it's about the government not constantly sending contracts abroad. So again, it goes back to, you know, buy, make, and sell more in Britain. They can do that, but instead, you know, just recently with the fleet solid support ships, they've sent that £1.6 billion contract, gave it to a foreign company.
Why aren't these things not coming entirely into Britain, to build our steady drumbeat of work, to build our skillset and ensure jobs for the future as well? Because what we've found is, again, going back to the example from my dad and all my family in the shipyards, is once those skillsets go, once those yards are shut, it costs twice as much to build that infrastructure up again and to get those skillsets in place.
B: I think a lot of listeners to this will entirely agree, and Emma Lewell-Buck for Secretary of State for Industry!
Okay, if you were Secretary of State for Industry and you could pull the levers of power, if there were three things you would do, sort of immediately, to get the UK industry and manufacturing rolling again, to sort of similar levels as it were in the past, what would you do?
E: I suppose it comes back to that point again, doesn't it, that if there's government contracts, then I would want those contracts to go to companies that were going to be based in the UK, and that those companies would invest in the UK, in the infrastructure, invest in skills, reach out to young people in schools, make sure that they were getting paid a decent wage and that they were getting good training.
So, it goes back to all the things I've kind of said already. There needs to be a willingness from government to do these things because it can't happen alone, and it was the stuff I was trying to do through the Levelling Up bill where they just completely ignored it.
There's areas of the country where they're right for this kind of thing, they're right for manufacturing, they're right for the investment, but you've got a government that doesn't want to listen.
B: In terms of Labour then, is the Labour Party at the moment, in a space where manufacturing, industry, making more in Britain, is centre to its economic policies?
E: Absolutely. I mean we've already pledged when it comes to military equipment that will design, and build and buy more in Britain.
So, this is definitely something we're thinking about because we recognise that, again, once the skills are gone, they're gone, once the infrastructure's gone, it's gone — it costs twice as much to build it up. And, going back to the example from my own constituency, there's opportunities there in green and emerging technologies, like what we've done with the Dogger Bank Wind Farm.
B: You mentioned you've been in parliament approaching now 10 years. I think it's a couple of months, is it? Before it's been 10 years or is it already there?
E: It's next week, the second of May.
B: I mean, in those 10 years, you obviously, you know, as an MP you get contacted by umpteenth lobby groups and special interests, all pushing certain causes. Do you think that manufacturing has got a loud enough voice in Westminster, or does manufacturing need to up its own game?
E: I think manufacturing does have a loud enough voice — it's about people listening. And I think every single government, well, our political cycle is plagued by short-termism, isn't it? And when it comes to manufacturing, it can't be short-term, it needs to be investment for the long-term. And I think the way our political cycle works; it doesn't lend itself to that long-term planning or that long-term investment. I don't know what we can do about that, maybe if Labour get in government in the next general election we can try and stay in for 10, 15, 20 years, and then we're not plagued by short-termism.
But if you look at the churn over just the 10 years that I've been in, normally if you've been an MP for 10 years, you might have stood for election twice, I've stood for election four times now. So, that just shows the instability in the British political system. And, you know, the constant churn that we've had with Brexit, change of prime ministers, is all impacting on the voice that manufacturing and anyone else can have because ministers and prime ministers are changing at a rate of knots.
B: Emma, thank you very much. I think this is a really interesting point on which to finish, actually. We've gone through everything on education, we've gone through what government can do, and I think it's given us a good insight, actually, into those particular areas. Clearly, lots needs to be done to close that skills gap in manufacturing, to draw talent in and to get industry thriving.
Thank you so much for coming on today. Congratulations on 10 years in Parliament, here's to the next 10 years.
E: Thank you very much!
B: Thank you!
Thank you again to our guest and thank you for listening. For more information on the Institute and what we do, visit www.instituteforprosperity.org.