Month: March 2014

Manufacturing ‘missing a generation of apprentices’

There is mild optimism among staff in West Midlands after a rise in output but elsewhere chances of getting work look remote

It is a measure of returning confidence to the fortunes of BSA Machine Tools that four apprentices have been taken on over the past two years, bringing the full-time UK staff up to a total of 38. Given that in the 1960s the parent companies that became BSA Machine Tools employed about 14,000 people, this represents a very small step upwards after decades of decline. Nevertheless, staff here are inclined to be cautiously positive.

Steve Brittan, managing director at the company, which makes machine tools for the aerospace, defence, oil and automotive industries – 90% for export, feels there is a new confidence in the economy and is tentatively reaping the dividends of an export-led recovery.

He welcomed the chancellor’s vision of a Britain that makes things again, though he recognises that for his business to be successful its high-end UK headquarters will continue to be supplemented with much of its work being outsourced to more low-tech partner enterprises in China and Taiwan.

The mild optimism felt by staff here echoes the wider excitement about the surge in exports from West Midlands to China and the rapid expansion of nearby Jaguar Land Rover, which is employing thousands of new workers. But the confidence is felt in isolated pockets and has not filtered through to much of the local area, the parliamentary constituency of Hodge Hill, south Birmingham, which still has the highest level of youth unemployment and the second highest overall unemployment in the country.

Liam Byrne, Labour MP for the constituency, said many of the new jobs that had recently been created were part time, zero-hours contracts. While he welcomed signs of recovery in West Midlands manufacturing, he noted: “The flipside of that is that this new wealth is not widely shared. It sits alongside deeply entrenched poverty.”

BSA Machine Tools’ headquarters have shrunk from the vast expanse they occupied until the 1980s, with land sold to make car parks and a large bingo hall (where managers will be celebrating the chancellor’s decision to halve bingo duties to 10%), and now occupy a long narrow warehouse, where mainly elderly staff are working on three £1.7m machines for export, and are preparing to start work on a £1.1m order for two more machines that will be exported to Mexico for fracking.

“It is small beer,” he says of his modest employee expansion, but he believes the government is genuine in its commitment to supporting manufacturing. In the past year he has had breakfast with David Cameron in Downing Street, to explain the needs of manufacturers exporting abroad, and has given Vince Cable lunch and a tour of the Birmingham headquarters.

The announcement of a focus on cutting energy costs, given US industrial energy prices are half those in Britain, is welcome, since this is an issue Brittan cites as a significant obstacle to being competitive. “I think they recognise the problems caused to manufacturing by 30 years of progressive dismantling by various governments, and that’s encouraging,” he said.

The decades-long decline in manufacturing is evident on the shop floor, where there is a noticeable gulf in ages between the majority of staff and new recruits: 70% of employees are over 60, a high percentage are over 65 and three are over 70. One older staff member is instructing a new electrical apprentice, pointing out important aspects of a piece of equipment with his grey hospital crutch.

“I hope these guys will hang on in there while the apprentices come through,” Brittan said. With the decline in profitability of UK manufacturing the company shrank and stopped employing new apprentices. “It’s a microcosm of what has happened in the UK manufacturing industry and the way it has been treated.”

He thinks a corner was turned about three years ago when the value of the pound dropped, making British exports more attractive globally, and when the government began making more positive commitments to the manufacturing sector. As well as the core team in Birmingham, the company contracts in a further 800 staff in China when orders require them.

Increased willingness from banks to lend to the business over the past year and the confidence given by assurances of continued low interest rates from the governor of the Bank of England have also helped the business begin to feel more secure about its future, he said.

Andrew Manning, 25, one of the new apprentices who joined two years ago when the company took on a handful of big orders to make machines for the US oil industry, said: “There is a missing generation in terms of apprentices – we’re having to learn from the blokes who are about to retire, and they’re having to hold on until we learn more.”

He is thrilled to be in work, particularly given the bleak employment statistics in the local area, but life remains complicated even when you are working. Because he is older than the other apprentices, he earns more than the standard £5 an hour but still finds the rising cost of living in Birmingham, ever increasing rents and soaring bills a struggle and is conscious that the prospect of buying somewhere to live remains remote.

A mile from the headquarters in the offices of a community centre, the Hub, which works with marginalised young people offering free access to the internet and support with looking for work, staff do not believe the people they support are feeling the effects of a recovery. The Firs and Bromford estate sits on the other side of the M6 from the Jaguar Land Rover site, but the charity has yet to help anyone find work there.

“We’re not in Cornwall where there are no jobs, but there is a disconnect,” said Paul Wright, branch director of Worth Unlimited, the charity that oversees the centre. Although the car manufacturing plant was visible from the windows of the estate’s tower blocks, locals felt finding work there was only a remote possibility.

This area is in the top 1% most deprived wards in England. Statistically “it has all the highs that you wouldn’t want to be high and all the lows that you wouldn’t want low: high unemployment, high deprivation, social exclusion; low educational attainment, levels of skills”, Wright said.

“All those statistics are there. People here do have talents and skills, the willingness to work, but there are problems with access to jobs. We see the Range Rover success story, and they are taking on people – but the jobs that tend to be available are agency, zero hour, night shifts, with no long-term security.”

He conceded that: “If you look hard, there are some positive signs,” and described the happy case of a 30-year-old man who had been unemployed for a long time and recently got a job with Land Rover, at a different site, a bit further away. His success is used to try to inspire other job-seekers who come in looking for work.

“It does help to be able to tell people about this person who got a job. There’s nothing more inspiring than that,” he said, but he conceded that this job too was a short-term placement through an agency, on a zero hour contract, night shifts, and with no long-term security.

“Technically he doesn’t actually work for Land Rover because he is contracted through an agency. Still, in this climate he is a success story. That’s why we’re celebrating him.”

[The Guardian]

A sounder pound: new £1 coin unveiled

12-sided new £1 coin unvieled design reprises threepenny bit as Royal Mint and Treasury say existing coin is too easy to forge

A new 12-sided pound coin based on the threepenny bit is being unveiled – and is said to be the hardest in the world to fake.

Described as a “giant leap into the future” the new coin will replace a familiar token that the Treasury says has a 3% forgery rate – amounting to a total of more than 45m in circulation.

The coin is based on the historic three pence piece, also known as the “threepenny bit”, which was the first coin to feature a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.

But unlike its predecessor the new coin – which will be roughly the same size as the existing one when introduced in 2017 – will contain an array of technological advances making it difficult to forge.

As well as a “bimetallic” construction similar to the existing £2 coin, the new £1 will feature new banknote-strength security pioneered at the Royal Mint’s headquarters in Llantrisant, South Wales.

A Treasury spokesman said: “After 30 years’ loyal service the time is right to retire the current £1 coin and replace it with the most secure coin in the world.

“With advances in technology making high value coins like the £1 ever more vulnerable to counterfeiters it’s vital that we keep several paces ahead of the criminals to maintain the integrity of our currency.

“We are particularly pleased that the coin will take a giant leap into the future, using cutting edge British technology while at the same time, paying a fitting tribute to past in the 12-sided design of the iconic threepenny bit.”

The Royal Mint chief executive, Adam Lawrence, hailed the “exciting project”, adding: “The current £1 coin design is now more than 30 years old and it has become increasingly vulnerable to counterfeiting over time.

“It is our aim to identify and produce a pioneering new coin which helps to reduce the opportunities for counterfeiting, helping to boost public confidence in the UK’s currency in the process.

“We’re extremely proud that the proposal includes the Royal Mint’s Integrated Secure Identification System (iSis) technology, offering greater currency security at a lower cost.”

As with all British coins the Queen’s effigy will be on the “heads” side, while the Treasury has said there will be a public competition to decide the design for the “tails” side.

A Bank of England spokesman said: “Coins are the responsibility of the Royal Mint and together with the Bank’s decision to produce polymer banknotes this change will enhance the security and integrity of the currency.”

National Crime Agency counterfeiting expert John Sheridan said: “The issuing of a new coin with enhanced security features will make it more difficult for criminals to copy as well as presenting increased opportunities for law enforcement to investigate and disrupt the producers and distributors of counterfeit currency.”

[The Guardian]

Rural Crime

National rural crime plan launched to protect communities

TWO of Britain’s largest national crime-fighting organisations have joined forces to crack down on rural criminals.

Launching the initiative between Crimestoppers and the Neighbourhood and Home Watch Network at the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) rural crime conference in Birmingham today (Wednesday), Crimestoppers chief executive Mark Hallas said a ‘coalition approach’ was needed to tackle the growing problem.

The campaign will focus on raising awareness of rural crime, the signs to look out for and how information can be passed to Crimestoppers anonymously. It will be the first time that both charities have worked together nationally to tackle crime directly.

Rural crime costs the farming industry millions of pounds each year.

Mr Hallas, said: “Crime within the rural communities is a prevalent issue that should not be ignored and should instead be tackled by those who can help bring the number of incidents down.

“Crimestoppers is committed to supporting those affected by rural crime and we hope that by pairing up with our partner organisations, and with the help of the public, we can start to bring those responsible to justice.”

Both organisations, the police, public and businesses, including farmers, will share information via a national website and communication system called Rural Alert, an addition to the national database and communication system Neighbourhood Alert, used by the Neighbourhood and Home Watch Network.

Jim Maddan, Chairman for the Neighbourhood and Home Watch Network, added: “As technology advances so do criminals and we need to work together to be one step ahead. Criminals do not stop committing crime because they are travelling into another county or police force area.

“By adopting a national approach, boundaries disappear and information becomes more apparent. By sharing the information on what we do know about this type of crime, the public and businesses can really have an impact on helping the police to catch the small minority of people affecting many rural communities”.

The Neighbourhood Alert system is used by 10 police forces as well as several Fire and Rescue Services, Resilience Forums and local authorities.

Hundreds of thousands of people have registered for free via one of the 70 sites that use the Alert system.

In the last year over 20,000 farmers have joined a Farm or Country Watch website powered by Alert.

Rural Alert gives farmers and any rural community the opportunity to register free of charge, receive messages and report information.

For more information visit

[Farmers Guardian]