Belfast Telegraph

Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell 'out of his depth' and told to 'up his game' to halt major loss of jobs in manufacturing

By John Mulgrew

Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell is "out of his depth" and there is substantial pressure to stem the haemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs here amid a "serious crisis" in the sector, it's been warned.

Calls for action to help Northern Ireland's manufacturing industry have come from the worlds of politics, business and economics.

The growing fear in the sector comes after almost 1,100 jobs were lost in the industry here in the space of a week.

Caterpillar NI revealed it was cutting 100 jobs, while Schrader Electronics is letting 42 temporary staff go.

And last week, manufacturing was shaken further with the announcement that Michelin is pulling out of Ballymena, with the loss of 862 jobs.

And Mr Bell needs to "up his game", according to the chairman of the enterprise committee, Patsy McGlone.

"The minister has been shown to be out of his depth in renewables and is now out of touch with manufacturing," the SDLP man said.

"Given the news I believe I am not alone in having concerns about the ability of the minister to protect the thousands of people who rely on the manufacturing industry in the north."

Following a meeting with Michelin bosses in Brussels, Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson said "now is the time for action, not words" from the minister and the NI Executive as a whole.

"It is becoming increasingly clear that Northern Ireland is facing a serious manufacturing crisis," he said.

Responding to the this paper's inquiry, the Enterprise Minister said: "Both I and the Executive will continue to support local manufacturers to improve their competitiveness and grow in external markets while also looking to secure further inward investment".

Mr Bell said he had called for a meeting over high energy costs here and would "continue to work with and meet with key stakeholders, employers and unions to ensure we work together to ensure we remain competitive".

More than 80,000 people work in manufacturing, representing around 14% of Northern Ireland's economy.

Stephen Kelly of Manufacturing NI has called on the minister to tackle the latest difficulties within the industry.

"We would hope that he would use his influence to come up with a plan, supported by colleagues in the Executive and agencies, to make the case for new manufacturing in Northern Ireland," he said.

Aside from the huge job losses in recent days, Northern Ireland's largest manufacturer, Bombardier, is also facing uncertain times amid its CSeries jet struggles.

And Ulster Bank's chief economist Richard Ramsey warned that jobs will continue to be lost as businesses cut costs amid high energy bills.

He said that - along with the slowdown in China - energy bills were the main reason for the sector's latest struggles.

"If we aren't able to lower energy costs relative to other economies, in the shorter-term this will mean that the burden of cost-reduction during the global slowdown will fall on staffing levels," he said.

"Governments cannot address short-term demand problems, but they do need to redouble their efforts on infrastructure and skills to promote competitiveness in the medium to longer term," Mr Ramsey added.

Meanwhile, the latest research from Ulster University has predicted growth in the industry here over the next 10 years - up by around a sixth.

Manufacturing is forecast to grow, significantly reversing a long term trend of decline and typically in higher value sectors driven by an increase in FDI.

Belfast Telegraph