Confidence boost for West Midlands manufacturers

Confidence amongst SME manufacturers in the West Midlands is at its highest level for two years according to the latest Manufacturing Barometer, carried out by the Manufacturing Growth Programme (MGP) and SWMAS (the South West Manufacturing Advisory Service).

Some 62% of firms are expecting to increase sales between now and October, with 54% indicating that they are planning to boost investment over the next six months as they look to the future. Out of 61 firms questioned, nearly half highlighted an increased need to recruit staff over the coming months.

This quarter’s Barometer took an in-depth look at how manufacturing SMEs are recovering from the pandemic and, encouragingly, 44% of respondents now expect to return to, or exceed, their pre-COVID-19 position within three months.

On the jobs front, although 77% of businesses have utilised the government’s furlough scheme at some point in the last year, only 38% are still using it today.

The report also reveals that new working practices are being implemented because of the pandemic. Nearly two fifths of business leaders questioned are now planning to offer their employees some level of remote working, up 24% from the number who were offering this before the virus started.

Martin Coats, managing director of the Manufacturing Growth Programme, said: “Small to medium-sized manufacturers in the West Midlands experienced a positive quarter’s trade between January and March, with nearly half reporting an increase in sales, compared to 24% in the previous barometer.

“Whilst COVID-19 has been challenging, it has accelerated new ways of working, some of which have proven to be more effective.”

He continued: “38% of manufacturers have said they will continue to offer some form of remote working going forward, which would have been unheard of fifteen months ago. These beneficial changes will offer employees more flexibility and, ultimately, a better work/life balance.

“Firms often cite that recruiting skilled staff can be a challenge. With this in mind, it is vital that they understand the working practices offered by other employers across the sector to help them compete and attract the best talent.

“The intelligence within this quarter’s Manufacturing Barometer offers businesses a unique advantage in terms of supporting their future growth ambitions.”

Whilst the Chancellor heralded his “business-friendly” budget earlier this year, a third feel that the measures introduced will aid recovery.

Some 43% have said that they don’t think the budget will affect their recovery, which indicates that it may not be tailored to the needs of the manufacturing sector.

Coats added: “SME manufacturers are definitely feeling confident about the future, but there will still be a lot of challenges to overcome, not least the availability and lead times of material. Government will need to consider future support to help the manufacturing industry navigate the coming months.

“In terms of digital infrastructure, 62% of management teams believe what they already have in place is sufficient for their future plans, however, 15% recognise a need for support in this area, and this may become an issue for more businesses as the sector continues to adapt.”

He concluded: “Just 8% have invested in IT Skills training to help their employees feel comfortable with this new way of working. In addition, over a quarter are planning to offer mental health awareness support/training to their workforce.

“This shows that manufacturers understand the impact COVID-19 may have had on employee welfare and are prepared to support their staff in this area.”