The Isle of Man has some of the most advanced engineering facilities in the world, working shifts around the clock to ensure the millions of pounds invested are used to maximum capacity in order to compete with the opposition in China and elsewhere.
None of this business is in any way tax-driven, its needs are simple; reasonably priced and secure electricity and telecommunications, good transport links to Manchester and London, efficient waste management and a skilled labour pool. Swagelok Limited is one example of a global company with a manufacturing base on the Island and at the cutting edge of its field.
Manx Business Connection was recently treated to a tour of Swagelok Limited’s factory accompanied by Terry McKay, founder of Kenmac Limited (acquired by Swagelok in 2003) and guided by Swagelok’s General Manager, David Hester. The facility, equipment, products, team and client list are all immediately impressive and the enthusiasm and passion of those working at Swagelok is tangible, no doubt stemming from the fact that the products are world leading and their factory is ‘Lean’, well organised and highly productive. Despite continuing success, there is an underlying concern in the Company and amongst the wider manufacturing sector, that the limited skilled labour pool is restricting their growth and future development, as well as the potential for the Island to continue to attract new manufacturing businesses. Manufacturing has always been an integral part of the Isle of Man, an essential element in the diverse economic base that identifies us as an International Business Centre. The rapid growth of the finance sector over the last 40 years stole news headlines, attracted the support of politicians and became the place where those looking for lucrative work would gravitate. Meanwhile, the manufacturing sector quietly continued to develop a highly successful cluster of companies, ranging from large, modern global companies to small enterprises run by entrepreneurs, but all demanding technical and engineering skills.
Most outsiders fail to recognise that being involved in engineering no longer involves hammering metal and working in an unpleasant environment. Sophisticated control, logistic and IT systems require graduates and throughout the sector there is ample demand for technical problem solvers who enjoy working in a creative environment (which in many cases is air-conditioned).Despite the many opportunities for employment in the manufacturing sector there has been insufficient interest in those seeking employment or further education in this sector to meet the growth demands. There remains a lack of understanding with many teachers and parents of the exciting and intellectually challenging careers on offer in the engineering sector. Typically in recent times, our high performing students have been directed to the Finance sector by their mentors and advisors. This behaviour is not unusual; many academics in Britain have long misunderstood the value that engineering can have in driving an economy and producing excellent income and employment opportunities. In fact, engineering requires a good understanding of maths and develops excellent problem solving skills. The UK’s proposed school syllabus changes will focus on design and technology with students learning 3D printing, laser cutting and including micro-processors in their creations. These skills will be inculcated at an early age and will develop problem-solving skills along with equipping them to enter engineering. But will they find work when they are qualified? In the Isle of Man there is a serious shortfall in the number of people both able and willing to work in the sector. A recent survey of the IOM manufacturing sector shows that 72 jobs are needed per year to replace retirees and fill new vacancies. The IOM aerospace cluster companies alone have been employing on average 24 people per year, but this is not sufficient to keep pace with their requirements. As a result some work has been outsourced to other countries and opportunities to bring in additional work to the Island have been lost.
The manufacturing sector is working closely with Government and the Isle of Man College to develop courses with skills appropriate for the local industry. Recent investment in changes to the courses offered and equipment and staffing provided are a welcomed step forward but the Island still has some way to go to provide the high levels of practical, relevant training necessary. As an International Business Centre (IBC) the Island has a huge advantage over its jurisdictional competitors in that we have real space for tangible businesses and a truly diversified economy. However, with a limited skilled labour pool, manufacturing faces the inevitable and undesirable position where new vacancies are being filled by staff from other existing Isle of Man manufacturing companies rather than by a new intake of qualified people. This is not sustainable. Anybody doubting the value in focussing on developing a vibrant engineering base should consider the reasons for Germany’s economic pre-eminence in Europe, one which provides consistently high levels of income and quality employment opportunities.
Focusing on the issues faced by manufacturing on the Island and increasing the pool of skilled labour available will produce a virtuous circle by encouraging:
Manufacturing companies are like a micro-business centre requiring a diverse range of skills from business and finance, marketing and sales, design and technology, IT as well as highly skilled operators. The contribution of this sector to the Island’s economy is invaluable and its continued development and success essential. Maybe it is time to give some serious thought as to how we can assist an industry which has so much potential and which can offer so much to the Island’s community.