There was a time when Britain was known throughout the world for its steelmaking.
We were the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution and whole areas of our country have been shaped by that ever since. Sheffield was the centre of steel, with the surrounding areas home to coal mines, glassworks, mills and canals. Britain was the industrial heart that exported to the world.
Governments have shifted Britain away from being a huge manufacturer and producer towards an economy that is focused on banking and financial services mainly based in London and the provision professional services. This has made us not only more vulnerable to the whims of unaccountable bankers, but also meant that we have handed over our mantle of being the engine driver of the world to other countries.
Germany, for example, has not been so rash and has developed a strong tradition of apprenticeships and high-quality vocational careers. An apprenticeship in Germany tends to last three years and includes at least one day a week of classroom study. Apprentices can expect to be rigorously assessed as the standard is moderated by industrial federations. In Germany employers can confidently hire someone who has completed an apprenticeship, whereas an employer in Britain today might be put off by varying standards and diverse methods of accreditation.
Over the past few weeks our vulnerability in global production has again been laid bare. The steelworks at Redcar, on Teesside, is likely to be completely closed in the near future. Most of the 2,200 workers have already lost their jobs and are headed to the job centre – in many cases after decades of highly-skilled service. A major factor behind the closure of the works is the challenge of competing with cheap imports from China. In the middle of the 19th century forty percent of the world’s steel came from Britain and now almost half comes from China. Teesside, the area that once produced the steel to build Canary Wharf in London, is now the victim of this global change. The Government’s response has been pathetic.
It is time to once again get real about high-skilled production jobs in Britain. Our steel industry is worth £9.5 billion to the economy, too much to throw away when faced with competition from abroad. This doesn’t mean just handing the next generation a shovel. We should be much smarter: decent apprenticeships leading to a job that is high-skilled and for life. This should be started by introducing apprenticeship programmes in every company that is paid by the Government to carry out a contract. If you run contracts that are paid for by the taxpayer, you should be expected to train young people up to do the job in later years. The closure of the steelworks at Redcar is a symptom of where we have gone wrong as a country – it is time to put jobs and skills back on the agenda and time for the Government to save the British steel industry.