NW factory sector needs life support

Jimmy Kelly, Ireland Secretary of Unite, right, and Liam Gallagher, Unite's Irish Regional Executive Chair pictured at the launch of his union's economic proposals document at Long Gallery, Stormont.
Jimmy Kelly, Ireland Secretary of Unite, right, and Liam Gallagher, Unite's Irish Regional Executive Chair pictured at the launch of his union's economic proposals document at Long Gallery, Stormont.

Fourteen Londonderry manufacturing companies, including DuPont and Seagate, say the sector has struggled in the North West since the death of textiles, and have warned a lack of critical mass in engineering here needs to be addressed.

The Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Collaborative Network (AMECN) has just presented its first phase report investigating skills issues holding manufacturing back in Londonderry, and says half of its members have reported difficulties recruiting skilled staff.

During the period the report was being completed last year, of 80 vacancies, seven companies had difficulty recruiting for 70 positions, ranging from CNN/CNC machinists, to electronic, production and chemical engineers.

The report comes after Stormont refused, on Monday, to countenance a stand-alone manufacturing strategy for Northern Ireland and Economy Minister Simon Hamilton claimed that while seventy job losses announced at Seagate recently were “devastating to those...directly affected [and] exacerbate the belief that manufacturing in Northern Ireland is in poor shape,” that isn’t the case.

“That perception does not tally with careful analysis of the performance of the sector,” said Mr Hamilton. “Whether it is jobs, sales, exports or output, our manufacturing sector is performing very well.

“Figures for 2015 show that employment in the sector is now at 80,000. This is the first time since 2008 that the sector has had 80,000 jobs.”

Whilst not disputing Mr Hamilton’s assessment AMECN member, Paul Kirkpatrick from DuPont, said manufacturing in the North West needs special attention.

“We wanted to develop a framework for engagement between businesses and F&HEIs and schools in the region and to develop a plan of action that would allow us to properly deal with any issues as well as fostering better collaboration between all stakeholders.

“As a group, we want to provide a long term, sustainable solution to the skill shortages constraining the growth of the engineering and manufacturing sectors in the region.

“This solution would include up-skilling, the promotion of careers in the sector and ensuring the curriculum required to support that excellence is readily available.”

He said: “One of our main objectives is to advance manufacturing and engineering in the region and, in doing so, addressing the lack of critical mass of manufacturing and engineering in the North West.

“The priority issues for us are building a strong and sustainable skills infrastructure, addressing the skills shortages, increasing access to and the recognition of innovation, shifting perceptions of manufacturing and engineering and building the network,” he said.

Liam Gallagher, Chair of the Ireland Executive Committee of the Unite union, and a leading member of Derry Trades Council, called on the Executive to “wake up and smell the coffee.”

“A strategy is urgently needed,” he told the paper. “For twenty to thirty years we were told that manufacturing is old hat, that you can’t compete.

“But you can see that even the Tory Government in England is coming to realise the importance of the sector.

“There’s a realisation that if you don’t produce things and you don’t export things then it has a negative effect on your balance of trade.

“In the United States you have the use of protectionism and tariffs to protect American jobs.

“This has been a policy employed by President Obama and is likely to be continued under the next President.

“Whilst tariffs are not permitted under European Union rules we should follow the example of Germany and France and build-in protective clauses in public procurement projects, which support local jobs.

“For us in the North West it’s almost gone beyond the critical stage. There are only about 3,000 manufacturing jobs left and we’ve had bad news at Seagate with 70 jobs to go.

“We want the Government to wake up and smell the coffee. The last Executive said it created 40,000 jobs in Northern Ireland.

“But we estimate that this amounted to 9,500 actual jobs, the rest were promoted, they haven’t been created yet.

“And now they are projecting a further 50,000 jobs, is this to be another false promise?”