By Clive Hickman OBE, Chief Executive – Manufacturing Technology Centre
The impact that the transition to electric vehicles on the West Midlands landscape are the twin priorities of levelling up, in terms of our regional economy, and the achievement of our net zero ambition.
Sadly, the West Midlands, and particularly the Black Country, has some of the highest levels of unemployment in the country, and the move away from the internal combustion engine has the potential to make that situation even worse.
When I look across our region, I see hundreds of SMEs employing thousands of people making engine components such as cylinder heads, engine blocks, pistons, conrods, crankshafts, valves and springs – none of which will be required with the arrival of the EV.
Electric motors have only one moving part; the rotor, so what do we need to do collectively to avoid the West Midlands becoming a barren landscape?
For this transition to happen, we know that we will need over 100,000 people making batteries, but the West Midlands is still yet to secure investment for a giga factory despite the best efforts of Andy Street, our West Midlands Mayor. This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that we will need even more people in the supply chain for electric motors. However, the skills required are entirely different to those available to the sector today.
Without urgent and effective action the risks of even greater unemployment in our region will become a reality. We need to put in place measures to respond to the challenge ahead, but also acknowledge the opportunity.
The Midlands Manufacturing Resilience Commission, which I Chair, has advocated a number of actions:
• Create internship programmes placing graduates into SMEs to provide:
– bandwidth for SME leadership to be strategic as well as operational and supplement this with an industrial mentorship programme to support both the SME leader and the graduate
– vital industrial experience for graduates at a time when employment opportunities are scarce
• Modify the apprentice levy so that it can be used to upskill and reskill workers who have been displaced from their traditional sectors.
• Repurpose the National Training Scheme and direct funding towards the redeployment of people whose jobs are at risk.
• Support Midlands’ universities to create leadership development programmes on a modular basis to help SME leaders repurpose their businesses to pivot into new activities.
• Provide financial protection for SMEs who are willing and able to pivot their production to address the challenges of this dynamic market.
• Address the fragmented support for manufacturing across the Midlands, with a unifying strategic agenda and consistent co-ordinated intervention.
• Provide appropriate funding to the region’s Catapult Centres to help our SMEs to transition into new markets and products using the most advanced tools and techniques available; giving the levels of productivity and quality that will ensure the West Midlands remains a manufacturing and innovation stronghold.
In addition, we need a giga factory in the Midlands and we need rapidly to develop the supply chain to support that factory: batteries and electric motors will require even more electronic control than today’s engines.
So on addition to a giga Factory:
• We need to see a significant increase in electric motor production, something the West Midlands is eminently capable of supporting.
• We need urgent intervention to create a modern semi-conductor factory in the Midlands: We have already seen the impact that the shortage of microchips is having on the automotive sector so we cannot afford to sit back and hope for the best.
Net zero and levelling up are not mutually exclusive, provided the investment required to address these critical market challenges is made available.
For our region to prosper and for us to respond to the climate emergency, there really is no alternative.