The Demise of Skilled Traditional Manufacturing.

Over the past century, the rise of mass production and the use of machinery in manufacture has led to a reduction in the number of people pursuing careers in skilled traditional manufacturing.

The low cost of mass produced items has meant that the demand for more expensive, hand-crafted goods dropped and thus there has been even less demand for skilled crafters. However, in the more recent decades, consumers seem to be more invested in the quality of and ethos behind the products they buy. Thus, for many people, mass produced products from China have begun to lose their appeal, regardless of how little they cost.

An example of this can be seen if we compare two specific titanium bike frames. The first, LSL titanium bike frames, can set you back around £380 and are decent quality items from China. The second, a titanium bike frame and forks made by Jeff Jones, costs around £3700. The massive difference in price stems partially from the fact that Jeff makes his frames himself, painstakingly, while LSL are a large producer. However, the quality gap between the frames is not as wide as the price difference. What you are paying for is a unique piece, hand crafted and specially designed by a person who loves their craft. You are paying for an experience, for the enjoyment and the love behind the product.

On the other hand, not everyone can afford to pay such premium prices when the alternatives are so much cheaper. As such, it can be a status symbol in some circles, to have traditionally manufactured products that are clearly so. The resurgence in demand for Brook’s saddles is indicative of this. After being taken over by Selle Royal of Italy, the company has had a second coming, pushing their production to return to its roots by taking place almost entirely in Birmingham. Experienced manufacturers complete each saddle to a beautiful finish, with a distinct and recognisable branding that has a known legacy that to many symbolises quality. Brook’s saddles usually cost a minimum of £70, with many being well over £200. For just a saddle, this can seem a very high price, but these saddles are built to last and to many cyclists they are a reliable and lifelong companion. [1]

So what is the issue? Is this just a case of what people are willing to pay for? Partially, but a key problem with skilled traditional manufacturing is training people to do it, and do it well. To solve this problem, many companies offer apprenticeships. Apprenticeships involve people who are paid to work and learn the key skills they need to pursue a career in the industry they are apprenticing in.

The idea sounds like an ideal scenario; get paid, get free training, become qualified to have a skilled, well paying job at the end. The reality is that this is rarely what occurs. Firstly, the pay for those under 19 or those in the first year of their apprenticeship is only £3.40 an hour, less than the minimum wage for anyone under 18 in a regular job. After the first year, or after the person turns 19, this increases to the minimum wage for the person’s age. Thus if a school leaver, say, at age 16 would only be paid £3.40 in an apprenticeship while any person they know would be getting paid at least £4. This 60p difference per hour can add up if these people work full time, and thus there is a huge incentive to leave an apprenticeship for a better paying job.

“One-in-five apprenticeships lasts for less than six months; and, according to the government’s own research, one-in-five apprentices report receiving neither on nor off the job training as part of their apprenticeship. And a shocking 29 per cent receive less pay than they are legally entitled to.” [2]

Furthermore, after an apprenticeship ends, the idea is that the apprentice is now fully qualified and ready to work for their host company. However, many apprentices are let go once their apprenticeship is over, as the employer would then be expected to pay them more. Using apprentices as just cheap labour, and providing them with far less than the promised training is a problem that occurs. Clearly, some companies really are supporting and training people to gain new skills, but many are using these people to get around paying the minimum wage.

Money is not the only issue with apprenticeships. How they are viewed and how they stack up to a degree are huge factors. People who have attended university are often treated better than those who have completed apprenticeships, and graduates can often climb to higher end positions in the company than former apprentices. Putting degrees on a pedestal is not only unhelpful, it is actively detrimental to anyone not attending university. Apprenticeships should be on par with a degree, but public opinion shows them in a bad light, which can be another reason why people might not want to pursue an apprenticeship.

So, what does all of this mean for the future of skilled traditional manufacturing? While the problems with apprenticeships are pervasive, the issue is not an invisible one, and it is one that can be remedied. By having better legislation, improving public opinion of apprenticeships and establishing them as something not entirely separate from university degrees, truly ‘earning while you learn’ will not be an idyllic fantasy. The United Kingdom has a strong history in traditional manufacturing, and to establish a new generation of skilled craftspeople can only bolster our economy and reduce unemployment in the years to come.





One thought on “The Demise of Skilled Traditional Manufacturing.

  1. It’s such a shame about apprenticeships, you’d get paid twice as much to stack shelves in Tesco! So many industries depend on apprenticeships but the incentive just isn’t there.


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