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Bold plan to boost Co Antrim manufacturing industry


Rose Mary Stalker

That the closure of the JTI Gallaher and Michelin factories has had a big impact on the Mid and East Antrim district is without argument.

These were large employers paying good wages who helped to upskill their workers and lifted the ancillary businesses who supplied them throughout the region.

It would be easy to spend time and effort mulling over the loss but that wouldn't do much good when it comes to filling the gap which is left behind.

Instead, an action plan is needed, firstly to fill the gap from the withdrawal of two major employers in the region but also to provide the conditions where existing manufacturers in the area can thrive and where overseas investors want to set up shop.

It also means boosting productivity of the existing manufacturing base and increasing our competitiveness.

That is where the Manufacturing Task Force comes in.

It is a bold initiative from CEO Anne Donaghy and the elected members at Mid and East Antrim Borough Council which has the primary aim of rejuvenating the manufacturing sector for the good of the district and for Northern Ireland as a whole.

Having worked at a strategic level throughout the sector, I have first-hand experience of the type of environment manufacturers need to thrive.

But I don't claim to have all the answers and that's why the crux of this initiative involves tapping the expertise and knowledge of the leaders of manufacturing companies large and small, as well as the advisory bodies which are working with them on a daily basis.

The first step saw us bring over 100 people with over 50 representatives from companies in the sector together for a workshop in the Ecos Centre recently to hear first-hand the challenges they face and the suggestions they have to make for a better future. Who better to offer an insight?

We worked them hard but at the end of the session we had formulated a number of recommendations which we will be taking forward in the coming months.

Some of them seem simple, some of them more difficult to achieve, but they all have the same aim of growing manufacturing. They include:

- Creating a core capability in advanced manufacturing methods to provide leadership and expertise to local manufacturers, accelerating their application of digital manufacturing technologies to improve competitiveness,

- Inspiring more young people (and their parents) to pursue a career in manufacturing,

- Upskilling employees and leaders in preparation for the fourth industrial revolution, one where digital and advanced technologies are central,

- Holding meet-the-buyer events where small companies get the chance to sell to larger organisations and implementing a regional skills barometer to identify current and future skills needs and a SME Manufacturing Centre of Excellence.

We are now in the process of creating a number of action points to reflect these recommendations and will then embark on the hard work that will follow.

This phase of planning is essential in creating a successful future for manufacturing in Mid and East Antrim and we look forward to presenting our road map for the sector.

The Manufacturing Task Force is keen to continue the engagement with all stakeholders knowing that together we will boost productivity in the district, improve our global competitiveness and create jobs.

Rose Mary Stalker is chair of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council's manufacturing task force

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