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The importance of diversity in manufacturing

By Jillian MacBryde - Posted on 6 May 2021

Jill MacBryde is passionate about manufacturing and now as co-director of the Made Smarter Network as well as Deputy Director at the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship, Jill is calling for more diversity in manufacturing and attracting more people to the sector.

At the start of this year I was delighted to be included in The Manufacturer’s 30 Inspiring Women in Manufacturing. My philosophy in life tends to be “get on with it” and I’m not really one for making a fuss. As a female involved in manufacturing, yes I was in the minority early in my career - but I got on with it, and have done not bad for the girl from Greenock who was inspired by manufacturing at IBM when I was growing up. And I’m pleased to say that today I see far more women in manufacturing than I would have 30 years ago.

But today, as an academic who is involved in research looking at the future of manufacturing, I feel compelled to write this short article: a call to arms for more diversity in manufacturing. Manufacturing is facing a time of big change in the UK – for some it is a time of great challenge, but for many it is a time of fantastic opportunity. I truly believe we need to encourage and celebrate diversity in manufacturing. And I’m not just talking about gender.

I firmly believe that we need to ensure we have a strong manufacturing sector in the UK. If nothing else, Covid has shown us how important supply of goods is to us (who didn’t check that they had enough toilet roll and soap at the start of lockdown!). Yes, we can import things but when disruption happens - whether it be a pandemic stopping supply, or a volcano eruption meaning planes can’t fly or even constitutional change such as Brexit – we realise how vulnerable this makes us if we can’t provide for ourselves. In addition Covid (among other things) has made many of us stop to think about the environmental cost of transporting manufactured goods – and many of us have been pleased to support local businesses as they have supported us during lockdown. That is not to say we shouldn’t import things – far from it!

It’s not just about resilience, security of supply and the environment. Manufacturing is important for the economy. Official statistics suggests 9% of employment comes from manufacturing, this is less than it used to be in the UK. But a lot of the other employers would not be around without manufacturing buying their services. Importantly manufacturing is a big driver of innovation and accounts for around 65% of private sector R&D spending. Manufacturing plays an important role in others ways – contributing much more towards exports (45% of total exports). And something we don’t shout about enough – wages are higher in manufacturing.

The UK government recognises the importance of manufacturing in its many shapes and forms, and there is significant investment going into supporting manufacturing. One area that I am personally involved in is the Manufacturing Made Smarter Challenge. This recognises the need for manufacturing firms in the UK to embrace new technologies and reap the rewards of the digital era of manufacturing.

This takes me back to my call for diversity. The digital journey requires a workforce with a broad range of skills. It frustrates me that too often when we hear about manufacturing in the media it is accompanied by an image of heavy engineering and probably a guy in a boiler suit! Now whilst there are areas of manufacturing where you see such images, this is not my everyday lived experience of manufacturing – and I visit a lot of manufacturing facilities (well I did before Covid!). All too often when people in the public eye talk about manufacturing they immediately follow it up by talking about science and engineering. There are so many jobs in manufacturing that do not require skills in science and engineering – manufacturing companies need people to manage the supply chain, analyse data, plan production … and all the other stuff that is needed to run a business. And whilst there are companies involved in heavy engineering there are also a whole host of companies in the UK making food and drink, electronics goods, pharmaceuticals, shoes and clothes, luxury cars and yachts… and not a dirty rag in sight. 

We need to be changing the image and perception of manufacturing and attracting new people into the sector. Many manufacturing firms were reporting worries of an aging workforce before Covid hit, and it is likely that a good number of the people who exit businesses due to Covid pressures will be the older, more experienced people. So all the more important to bring in new blood. And the types of skills needed are very varied. So we need more diversity in our manufacturing workforce – we can see that through basic logic. But if we look to the research we can see an even stronger case for diversity. Research demonstrates that there is a link between diversity at board level and firm performance.

So my post is really a call to arms to ask everyone to try to project a much more positive and diverse image of manufacturing in everything we do. And at the same time, make sure we back this up inside our organisations by practicing equality and inclusion. Small actions - if we all do them - can bring about big change (which is why I am writing this blog..) Please join me in trying to promote and celebrate diversity in manufacturing and with lots of small action, together we can make change happen!

Manufacturing Made Smarter is holding an event on May 13 to formally launch the co-creation phase of Made Smarter Network. if you want to find out more about how you can be involved in shaping the name, structure, themes, governance, inclusivity and diversity of this network then you can sign up to the event here

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