by Richard Buckley, Editor, Business Eye

Manufacturing is at a crossroads with technological disruption, skills challenges and access to talent changing the playing field for manufacturers everywhere. That is nowhere felt more than in Mid-Ulster which has become a hotbed of manufacturing excellence in recent years.


 

Currently manufacturing accounts for over 26% of total direct employment in the region, compared to the NI average of 11%. It is estimated that 50% of total jobs in mid-Ulster now depend on local manufacturing with particular specialisms in materials and handling, heavy engineering, specialist joinery and food production. Companies in the area include heavy equipment manufacturers CDE Global, CDEnviro and Keystone Group in Cookstown, Strickland Ireland in Coalisland, and Specialist Joinery Group in Maghera. 

Over 100 business leaders from the sector attended a recent economic briefing event in Cookstown, hosted by First Trust Bank, where they discussed the current challenges and opportunities facing the sector. The Bank was joined by experts from the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre (UUEPC) and Manufacturing NI to share the latest economic data and forecasts. The ensuing discussions pointed to an appetite for future growth for the sector despite ongoing challenges, particularly in advanced manufacturing where Mid-Ulster is ranked third against the other Northern Ireland council areas while holding the number one spot for general manufacturing. 

Guests heard that the sector is estimated to currently deliver c£1.67bn GVA contribution to local economy and over £710m in local wages, directly and indirectly. On average it delivers wages 22% higher than the Mid Ulster area average, which is critical to the strength of the local economy. While the impressive statistics speak for themselves and many discussed Mid-Ulster’s manufacturing strength in global markets, the event was future focused. The key question of the morning was how can the sector remain a stronghold or grow even more, set against the current myriad of challenges it faces.

Of course, Brexit featured as a key talking point, with research presented by Stephen Kelly, Chief Executive of Manufacturing NI showing that 3 out of 4 manufacturers believe they will be worse off post-Brexit regardless of the type of deal that is done. Speaking at the briefing, First Trust Bank’s Mid-Ulster Business Centre Leader, Tommy Traynor outlined the concerns and implications of Brexit and the associated uncertainty is having: 

“Local businesses are contending with various geopolitical uncertainties, many of which of course are Brexit related. With the contraction of sterling, importing is more expensive; a pinch being felt all the more by manufacturers who are also dealing with rising input costs. This too is adding impetus to local businesses to invest in new technology and processes to drive efficiency, innovation and automation to keep costs down long-term.”

This move towards new technology and in particular automation and digitisation also featured strongly on the agenda. A subsequent Mid-Ulster Council organised event the same week saw Peter Marsh, author of ‘The New Industrial Revolution’ and former manufacturing editor at the Financial Times visit the area. He told a seminar at Specialist Joinery Group that new technologies such as advanced robotics, automation and digital fabrication would usher in the next industrial revolution and that local companies needed to innovate to ensure they continue to prosper.

The skills required to sustain and grow the manufacturing sector is another issue the sector is acutely aware of. With an additional 3,000 jobs forecast by the UUEPC by 2027, alongside the highest level of business births in NI, some are worried about the pressure this will put on skills in the manufacturing sector. Add to this the concern that Brexit may result in fewer migrant workers available to local companies and understandably the sector is keen to see to skills strategy to deliver the pipeline of talent it needs. 

Summarising the prospects for the sector, Tommy Traynor from First Trust Bank added; “Mid-Ulster’s strong manufacturing entrepreneurial base has made it more resilient than other areas to economic uncertainly, with the latest statistics reporting strong employment figures, wage growth and a high standard of living. It is important that it doesn’t however rest on its laurels and continues to invest in innovation and in skills to make it better prepared for whatever Brexit brings. Working closely with many companies in the sector, we have no doubt it will and will use this crossroads to take a new path to even greater success.” 

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Denise Glackin and Sheena Flynn from First Trust Bank with Stephen Kelly (left), Chief Executive of Manufacturing NI, and Gareth Hetherington, Director of the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre.

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