One of the most common complaints which I hear working in a machinery retail outlet is that the UK doesn’t make anything any more. Looking around the store this is an easy argument to accept, indeed most of the machinery I sell including lathes, welders and circular saws all come with a ‘Made in China’ tag. Furthermore most of the media reverts to this constant rhetoric, I have seen numerous articles posted in the media over the years foretelling the final demise of the UK manufacturing sector. So what is happening? Are we in a perpetual decline where we no longer have the ability to make anything? Such statements could be no further from the truth.
To begin with here are some interesting facts from a 2009 Price Waterhouse Coopers report that might surprise you. Firstly as of 2009 the UK was the 6th largest manufacturer in world (Some more recent measures vary between 5th and 10th), this includes large global shares within individual markets – the UK holds a 15% global share in the Aerospace sector. Secondly, UK manufacturing output had reached an all time high just before the 2008 global crisis took hold. Lastly, UK manufacturing achieved a 50% increase in labour productivity over the period 1997-2007. Although struggling due to the global downturn in the recent years, the facts show that the UK manufacturing sector is far from dead.
It can be argued that this idea that the UK manufacturing sector is in terminal decline emanates from a number of relative not absolute comparisons. When the relative figures are observed one could be forgiven for believing the above statement. For instance the graph below shows how manufacturing has contributed less and less to the national economy in recent years relative to other sectors.
Service sector growth has far outpaced growth in the manufacturing sector in recent times. This has further led to a decline in the relative number of manufacturing jobs. In 1980 manufacturing accounted for 25% of all UK jobs, by 2008 this number had fallen to 10%. Combine these figures with the fact that the UK’s share of global manufacturing has dropped significantly in the last few decades and you are left with a national sense of pessimism regarding the manufacturing sector. Yet as the paper argues the UK has been punching well above its weight for the last century in terms of size and population. It is therefore inevitable that we are to be caught up or overtaken in relative terms by countries with more abundant natural resources and supplies of labour as the Solow growth model predicts (the theory of diminishing returns states that the introduction of one more unit of capital into a capital scarce country will lead to a greater increase in output than in a country which is in comparison capital rich).
Despite the relative decline of the manufacturing sector as a component of total GDP, it is a rather unheralded fact that UK productivity in the sector has grown by 48% over the period 1987-2007. The gradual decline of manufacturing jobs is arguably attributable to such productivity increases and more broadly our natural progression to a knowledge economy. Better technologies and workplace practices have meant that we can now produce much more per individual worker. In an similar process which was seen in the agricultural revolution, these technologies and processes mean we require less manpower to produce the same amount of output compared to say, 1950. This fact should be celebrated, not frowned upon as it often is due to its impact upon jobs.
The manufacturing jobs of the future will not be based as much upon an assembly line but instead in the R & D departments where companies attempt to find a niche markets and thereby gain competitive advantages. This is where the knowledge economy comes in, although the UK is not gifted with large surpluses of labour as in China, it does retain a high level of human capital (the level of knowledge and know how an individual possesses) and this will be the driving force of growth in the long term as new innovations are made. So in this sense it is we should not be pessimistically stating we don’t make anything any more, we should be looking with optimism at what we will be making in the years to come.
Some additional facts of note.
- The UK has the 3rd largest automotive industry in Europe.
- The UK is home to the 2nd largest maker of aircraft engines in the world (Rolls-Royce).
- The UK has the 3rd largest pharmaceutical company in the world (Glaxo-Smith Kline)
- The UK has the 4th largest oil refining capacity in Europe.
- The UK manufacturing sector attracted £30 billion of net foreign direct investment in 2010.
This is quite a short post as I have only just returned after from the Philippines after a 3 week trip to see my girlfriend. I have intentionally omitted some of the more crucial challenges that the sector faces to focus on what it has achieved contrary to popular belief. Furthermore it should be acknowledged that the transition to a knowledge economy requires a strong manufacturing base and the current economic crisis may threaten this.