The Noah and Kevin Costner paradigm - 2023 reboot
Gary Sweeney, Sector Director for Future Mobility and Manufacturing, delves into the UK's energy revolution and the growth of industries like EV battery technology, emphasising the need for a parallel focus on nurturing a skilled domestic supply chain.
Whatever the changing narrative might be around globalisation, the fact is that modern economies are more interconnected than at any other time in history. Singular decisions often have far-reaching implications, and we learn regularly from news outlets about the ‘law of unintended consequences’ – most shockingly for those initiatives and actions that were initially viewed as positive and beneficial to life and society.
Looking at the UK, and more specifically around our pathway to net zero through an energy revolution, it’s easy to focus on the set-piece, high-profile and often high-value infrastructure projects that in many ways personify change and advancement. However, it’s my contention that a failure to focus an equal amount of time planning and supporting the associated industries, suppliers and talent pool that enable the primary activity to function, needlessly hinders and stifles our productivity and innovation. We’re also at high risk of creating a core reliance on imports of materials and talent – at the mercy of external factors, where we have limited control and agency to act decisively.
You only have to listen to recent comments from David White, the COO of Rolls Royce SMR (Small Modular Reactors), to recognise both the challenge and the opportunity that we face. In discussions to persuade international organisations to invest and build advanced manufacturing facilities in the UK to domestically serve the nascent SMR market, the number one consideration for these brands was access to an appropriately skilled workforce. David is clear that if we cannot provide that confidence in the UK’s skills pipeline – there will not be the required investment in domestic production lines, materials and services, and as a result, Rolls Royce will be forced to import technology, equipment and expertise from overseas.
Turning to EV battery technology and manufacture, we have exactly the same set of circumstances. We have an emerging sector, with big ambitions to grow and the luxury of consensus backing from all sides of the political divide. After several false starts, we’re seeing real traction and promise, with planned UK gigafactories in Sunderland and Somerset. But moving beyond the headlines and newsworthy statistics, it’s vital that in concert, we work with our home-grown supply chain – in its widest possible sense – to develop a domestic strategy that supports our gigafactories with the design, development and manufacture of the specialist production line machinery, installation and maintenance expertise, and vital R&D and sector innovation investments.
I remember back to a former role at Jaguar Land Rover, we always sought to work with local partners, especially on complex production machinery, as individuals would have real ownership and investment in solutions they’d help develop. Many of these highly skilled individuals came to work for us directly in a partnership that benefited both JLR and our supply chain.
Skills are the common factor that both hold us back – but could also transform and unleash our global potential. So while I applaud keynote investments in energy transformation, I’m also looking out for evidence that the UK is seizing the opportunity to create a simultaneous, resilient and sustainable supplier base, creating the high skilled and high wage roles to drive productivity and growth. Build that and they will indeed come!