Even a cursory glance at the Top 100 tells you how important our manufacturing sector is to the economy Northern Ireland. Innovative, resilient, committed firms who make an incalculable contribution to our way of life and putting jobs in places where people want to call home and as a result building strong urban and rural communities.
hilst some may have focused on the power of our cities to build our economy, our manufacturers have got on with business creating wealth through the dignity of work and making products which are enjoyed at home - critically bringing in a huge amount of external income to our small economy.
It is a great privilege of this job to be able to get past the factory gates and go see how and what our incredible manufacturing community make. None more so than when I was invited to the opening of the new Bloc Blinds factory in Magherafelt established to make face shields for the NHS.
At the beginning of the Covid crisis, Bloc repurposed inside one week to make their shields for front line workers, took over the local leisure centre and employed hundreds more local people. Their new partially automated production facility will help produce some 4.5 million shields per week and was completed inside only seven weeks.
This success is testament to the great leadership of Cormac Diamond and his talented team.
But, as Cormac said at the opening, “we were only able to do this because we have a manufacturing sector... lose that and we put yourself at risk”.
That is so true. Where would we be if we didn’t have a manufacturing base. How much trouble would we be in if it weren’t for the agility, ingenuity and entrepreneurship of our local manufacturing sector.
Some 600 local manufacturers repurposed in whole or in part to meet the challenges of the public health emergency.
Whether that’s O’Neill switching form sports jerseys to medical scrubs inside a weekend or Denroy taking the equipment and materials to make free visors for our doctors and nurses, our manufacturers stepped up and delivered.
Of course, we also hugely relied on those who kept going because we really needed them. Moy Park, Almac, W&R Barnett and Norbrook were there to provide food, medicines and keeping the food chain going. As were Keystone Group and Brett Martin and others who meet the challenge about keeping construction materials flowing and Encirc providing bottles for our drinks of choice which perhaps took the edge off the tedium of lockdown.
The hugely important engineering sector led by amongst others Terex, McCloskey and CDE temporarily closed but found a safe way of reopening to make sure people were paid and equipment shipped globally to meet challenges of recovering critical minerals or dealing with waste.
Many falsely believe that “we don’t make anything anymore”. Nonsense. Whether you are reading this on paper or online, have a look around.
There are real, physical things everywhere you look which are made by the hands of someone somewhere and increasingly likely, here at home. Furniture, food, telecoms, building products, electrical equipment, lighting and more. And, much of the final products make it to you because we’ve made the machinery to support the supply chain. Much may be imported, but much if it also comes your home or office from someone in your city, town or townland.
We should take a look around us and be grateful for the talents of our makers.
But gratitude won’t be enough. We face the huge challenge of recovery from Covid with the extra burdens of Brexit coming hurtling towards us. Our firms have little capacity or capital for a disorderly and rancorous end of the UKs relationship with the EU.
As I write this, one in three people in manufacturing are at risk of losing their jobs when the Job Retention Scheme comes to an abrupt close at the end of October. Sadly, those on furlough may join those in industries not able to wait to who have already announced inevitable redundancies.
Expect promises of retraining and reskilling as a response but these are some of our most skilled workers already. Preparing these workers for other industries is a real waste of talent and of opportunity.
The best place for them would be to move into our SME manufacturers. Bringing their experience and expertise to this part of industry could catapult the fortunes of these businesses.
For that to happen, these firms need to survive and need the support of the Executive. These export focused, high value-added firms are just the ones that every region across these islands are falling over themselves to attract and support yet here they have to fend for themselves.
Manufacturing is one of the toughest and most expensive businesses to start. It is not simply the case of getting premises and a team together, buying some stock, getting your marketing right and opening the doors with customer waiting outside. It is all of that but with a big capital outlay on machinery whose value is written down over 20 or 30 years, building a team with technical expertise, establishing complex global supply chains, months and years of product development, getting product and market approvals and then a long wait for prospects to have the confidence to be turned in to customers.
In many cases, it is a very long runway which sometimes requires significant lengthening before the business takes off.
With manufacturing businesses so difficult to start up, it becomes even more important that the Executive and its agencies are there for those who have made it through the difficult early years.
Our manufacturers have proven to be creative and resilient in some of our darkest economic days. As Cormac Diamond said, we are lucky to have them. We may rely on them again this autumn, so everything needs to be done to protect them in the coming months.
Our makers may be currently in retreat, but they can march again. Lose them now and we may well come to regret it.