I was watching BBC Question Time recently and was left in admiration of Deborah Meaden, the Dragon’s Den entrepreneur. For those who missed it she was promoting a growing campaign for more of the goods we consume to be made in Britain. She equated this with the lack of manufacturing and creative skills young people possess in the UK. She made the point that we’re educating young people with the sole aim of getting them good grades, and not putting enough emphasis on getting those that do not thrive in academia, pre-skilled for the job markets they’re likely to find themselves in. This, she intimated, left young people with the feeling that as they had failed at school, giving them the low self esteem and other traits associated with not having succeeded in the first of many challenges they’re likely to encounter. This tallied with conversations I’d had recently at a School Reunion I attended. I went to a school which was and still is predominately working class. I was asking the women how they had faired after leaving school at sixteen without the qualifications required for Further Education. Almost all of them found a job in Manufacturing. Norwich had a thriving shoe industry in those times and firms like Start-Rite and Bally would take on a number of school leavers. I worked at Bally for a while, in the stores attached to the factory floor. It was filled with a mix of young and old. The more experienced machinists helped out the less so , amidst an atmosphere of laughter and banter that was continuous until the whistle blew at the end of the day. The money was OK, overtime was to be had occasionally and bonuses’ were paid at Christmas. Where are the jobs these days that have replaced those? Looking at the employment figures for young people tells you all you need to know.
This brings me to another woman to be found on our screens a lot lately, Mary Portas. Whatever you think of her rise to fame, her move across fashion from retail consultant to brand co-designer for her recent series Mary, Queen of Frocks has led her to see whether she can start up a clothes factory. She’s taking applications from the ranks of the unemployed in Middleton, a former silk and cotton spinning mill town in Greater Manchester and attempting to re-establish an old mill as a working cut, make and trim operation that will provide garments to the big hitters on the British High Street. Unsurprisingly there is TV show attached to this but this is the sort of exposure I can forgive as the experiment (they’re on 12 month contracts) could open up a major new supply chain for the big players in fashion who are fast becoming exasperated by the quality, slow turnaround and the ethical nature of manufacturing in the Far East. Allowing quota free levels of imported garments effectively ships jobs overseas, while much of what we export back to these countries is our air in the shape of empty containers. Government’s talk of high skilled manufacturing being the future, but lots of these jobs still require degrees. In my eyes the failure to ensure that there is work for young people is a massive indictment on successive governments overseeing a warped education system. We need to start vocational education for young people at the ages of 14. We should also start to measure the success of a school, not only by grades, but the amount of leavers it has managed to place in work or work based training. As a retailer we often get young people come into the shop asking if we have any retail work. What we’re we’re looking for is young people with creative handiwork skills, of those we have had exactly none, and that’s scary.