How Derbyshire's manufacturers can make the most of the post-Brexit business world

November sees the return of the Made in Chesterfield campaign which, since its launch in 2013, has introduced thousands of young people across North East Derbyshire to the possibility of a career in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) sector.

By Anna Melton
Tuesday, 9th November 2021, 9:52 am
Updated Tuesday, 9th November 2021, 9:53 am
Experts dedbated the issues via video conference
Experts dedbated the issues via video conference

2020 proved a challenge for the sector. Not only did it have to contend with Brexit, but also the pandemic. Amongst the many restrictions placed by Covid, companies operating in the sector were not able to offer workplace tours to students, enabling them to see first-hand the many careers available, further adding to the recruitment difficulties companies within the sector have experienced for a number of years,

Having seen a 10% decline in output in 2020, the manufacturing sector is expected to recover a significant amount of that loss in 2021. According to Make UK, the growth in manufacturing output this year, due to a surge in both domestic and overseas orders, will outpace the growth of the economy overall. However, despite the growth in the sector and increasing employment opportunities available, a skills shortage persists.

This month’s round table was organised by Destination Chesterfield in conjunction with the Derbyshire Times. It brought together key figures from the town’s manufacturing and engineering sector to discuss how the sector can attract new talent both immediately and longer term to enable it to grow, maximise opportunities post Brexit and help the town attract further investment.

Taking part were:

JM – Josh Marsh – Destination Chesterfield Coordinator (Chair)

PT – Phil Tooley – Research & Development Tax Consultant, randd uk ltd

CH-N – Colin Hanson-New – Lecturer in Operations and Supply Chain Management, University of Derby

IF – Ivan Fomin – Managing Director, MSE Hiller

NC – Nick Catt – Managing Director, Weightron Bilanciai Ltd

M – Matthew Southgate – Senior Economic Development Officer, Chesterfield Borough Council

HF – Howard Freeman, Audit and Accounts Partner, Shorts Chartered Accountant

IB – Ian Bates, Policy and Representation Manager, East Midlands Chamber (Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire)

How can the town's manufacturing and engineering sector ensure it benefits from Brexit as well as mitigates the threats, such as the uncertainty of trade deals and the loss of European workers from the sector?

IF – Brexit is challenging for us as manufacturers; importing and exporting is difficult. We’re trying to import trailers from Germany and can’t find people who are keen to help with that. I sometimes find it difficult to see how we can benefit from Brexit.

NC – There are more obstacles than solutions. If you look at the Northern Ireland situation post Brexit, it’s virtually impossible to export there. It’s easier for people to buy goods from our parent company in Italy than to receive them from the United Kingdom.

IB - We have come across a number of businesses whose customers were using materials or buying from the EU and they are now getting their materials from those UK businesses.

PT – To mitigate the threats, you’ve got to get the best people you possibly can and train them in the best way. You’ve also got to get the best machinery and use it to your best ability. Companies should be proactive and go out and seek to be the best.

IF - We have invested heavily in equipment, buildings and training over the last few years. We need the people and a home market if we’re going to start producing any goods of meaningful volume here.

CH-N – Companies have got to look at how Brexit has affected their customers and also their supply base. If they can localise their supply base that could be beneficial. They should also look outside the business too at what’s been impacted not only since Brexit but in the last 18 months and addressing that.

NC - In one Government announcements, they’ve said that all medical-related equipment and construction products will be exempt from UKCA markings. They will be allowed into the UK indefinitely, CE marked. So, we’re on trajectory for a really un-level playing field.

CH-N – We’re suffering from what we did in the 80s and 90s when offshored a lot to the far east. Now we’re starting to think about how to bring the skilled jobs back here and trying to compete in this marketplace. If we start bringing things back into the UK, don’t have to deal with this legislation.

IF – In the UK, we have become a financial sector that’s very successful worldwide, but we have cut ourselves off from the manufacturing base in Germany and China. It’s not easy to just say “right, let’s start manufacturing”. Brexit was a political move, but the fallout from it is very practical.

Is there an opportunity for Chesterfield to become a leader and innovator in the manufacturing sector?

IB – We did some research into innovation, particularly during the pandemic, and we’ve seen a spike in businesses looking to innovate and pivot some of their products and services.

HF -. We’re right in the middle Derby and Doncaster which are historically great for innovation so there’s a good opportunity for Chesterfield.

PT – Despite the reduction of the manufacturing industry over the last few decades, from an engineering perspective there is still nobody as a good as the Brits. We’re the most innovative, imaginative and the best problem solvers.

IF – The UK is known for its innovation but also known for not particularly exploiting those ideas. We’ve got really fertile minds, an educated population and one of the largest economies in the world but our innovation always seems to go elsewhere. It seems like we’ve lost our edge. The banks seem willing to lend and the interest rates are at an all-time low – why aren’t we investing and building this infrastructure?

HF – At the end of the day, it’s down to an individual business owner to say I’m going to get the money to put into my business because I believe there is something we can do with it – I don’t think the business owners are supported by anyone but themselves.

MS – There has been a decline in manufacturing in Chesterfield but fundamentally it does remain a key sector. There are more than 350 companies in the borough employing more than 4,000 people. As a council, we have never been more let than at present with small industrial units.

CH-N – The University has the Innovate for Rail programme, and we want SMEs to come and work with us. A lot of us have come from business backgrounds and understand the challenges businesses are facing. We’re asking businesses how we can help them and always want to learn about what we can do for them.

MS - We really need some certainty from the Government as to whether they’re committed to delivering HS2.

What more can be done to encourage young people, women and people from BAME backgrounds, to consider a career in the STEM sector?

EW - It’s important for businesses to be engaging with local schools even if it’s just to let them know that you’re there and what you do.

CH-N – We need to educate parents and teachers every bit as much as young people. Parents are not encouraging the take-up of roles in the engineering sector. We have to educate them that a career in engineering is not what it used to be, it doesn’t always have to be dirty.

IF - I’ve encountered Headteachers that don’t want to push apprenticeships as they want to track students onto an A Level course and then perhaps onto a degree. Not everyone needs A Levels or a degree. We can train people up to both levels in a practical skills environment.

HF – Businesses need to go out and grab young people to tell them about and show them the amazing roles we’ve got in these businesses. If we can get young people to see that the sector isn’t just grimy factories, that could be what they need to attract them.

NC – We need to get away from the view of blue-collar work being second class. The people we have at our business are doing very well and are not second class at all.

EW – In engineering, there are only 12% women and 9% people from BAME backgrounds. There are some amazing jobs in this sector, right now and we need young people coming through to fill them.

HF - I was visiting a client recently and at the end of our meeting they took me to see this big new machine. The machine operator was a second-year female apprentice young girl. The director told me that when she goes on holiday, they struggle, because she’s one of the only people that can run that machine.

PT – Young people today have been brought up with technology and using it to get somewhere faster.

How can businesses, local authorities and education providers better collaborate to ensure the town's manufacturing and engineering sector can grow?

IF – Made in Chesterfield has been running for eight years now and it has achieved so much in that time. Two of our apprentices learned of MSE and our opportunities through Made in Chesterfield. It would be great to see more schools engage with the campaign.

IB - The education system does need to be looked at. You’ve got a drop off of young people picking STEM subjects at school, particularly young women, as they don’t get to the point where it gets interesting and they start looking at other career opportunities.

EW – We are working to change the perception of apprenticeships with teachers. A lot of them don’t know the different number of apprenticeships that are available to people right here on our doorstep.

IB – The Kickstart campaign is a great opportunity for both businesses and young people. It supports people between the ages of 16 – 24 that are unemployed to get workplace placements. They get financial support for training and equipment. The East Midlands Chamber is now the largest gateway provider in the UK. The next step and challenge for us then is to move the individuals onto full-time work and apprenticeships.