Two cheers for Industrial Strategy

The British government published its “Building our Industrial Strategy” green paper on Monday, and the internet has been awash with opinion ever since. Some positive responses from within industry will be gratifying for the Prime Minister – and UK industry has been crying out for a strategy for some time. Theresa May will have suspected some nagging questions over the effects of Brexit and some criticism of the limited scope of some of the measures set out too, so the call to action of a green paper – the invitation for debate and refining – can be deemed a success. The UK is finally talking about a real industrial strategy and it seems to have productivity, STEM and our unique blend of research opportunities and infrastructure needs at its heart. The government will be listening intently to how the debate plays out until the consultation officially closes on 17th April.

In terms of acknowledging the significance of the UK productivity gap, the paper emphasises that the solution won’t simply be a matter of making people work harder. Japanese workers are not known for their laziness and Japan is the only G7 country less productive than Britain, according to figures from the ONS. The more complex reality is that the productivity gap is really a technology gap, and SMEs in the UK have fallen behind the other advanced economies in making the upgrades to their systems necessary for keeping the UK competitive internationally. The economic case for increased investment in automation is well-established (Deloitte’s From Brawn to Brains report claims that every job lost to the technology produces four others in the UK, each with an annual salary worth £10,000 more on average than the one job replaced)

Making the political case will require courage and good leadership, of course – and any investment requires a level of faith and stability in the system. The suggestion from the Green Paper is that the government is waking up to the reality of this and is taking active steps towards addressing it.

So, what concrete STEM measures does the strategy suggest? The headline-grabber is the £170m for new government funding for Institutes of Technology. Notable for being one of the few new spending commitments in the proposal, the initiative is designed to provide a technical alternative to the now virtually ubiquitous academic education. This is exactly what UK manufacturing needs. Developments in industry have been accelerating dramatically over the last few years, and keeping the hardware and software in top-level manufacturing plants up to date is now a full-time job that requires specialist teams. Even the nature of the maintenance teams is evolving – where once the roles of Operational and Information technologists were entirely distinct they are now increasingly converging, to the extent that the students of today may well make their debuts on factory floors tended to by Technologists that feel as comfortable building a robotic arm as they do coding new drivers for it.

If the plans go ahead and the money is well-used then it will represent a very positive first step in the right direction for UK Manufacturing. Clearly, increasing automation represents the immediate future of industry (as demonstrated by the dramatic gains being made by companies that have embraced the technology most fully) and from our vantage point it looks as though that trend will continue long into the future. Nevertheless, we live in an age of change and any society serious about safeguarding its future prosperity itself could do a lot worse than to invest more money in educating its young people – whether that education is technical or academic. We will be watching how this aspect of the new Industrial Strategy plays out very carefully indeed. For now though we’re just happy to be finally talking about the Industrial Strategy we’ve needed for so long!

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