Skills shortages in the North East could present the biggest risk to the area’s economic stability in generations, according to a leading businessman.
Mike Matthews, managing director of Stockton based plastics manufacturer Nifco UK and current North East Business Executive of the Year, is calling for businesses to take the risk presented by skills shortages seriously, and do their bit to ensure the next generation is encouraged to enter industries like manufacturing and engineering.
Mr Matthews, who has been at the helm of Nifco UK since 2008, has seen his business grow its turnover from just £300,000 in 1988 to almost £50m.
The company now employs more than 400 people but he believes that unless the region’s business community comes together to address skills gaps, the company – and many others in the North East – will be unable to realise its potential.
He said: “Businesses across the region are growing, and it’s fantastic to see, but until we have the right skills base to support this growth, we will never be able to be all that we can be. We must address skills shortages and treat them as we would any other business issue – tackle them head on.”
Mr Matthews urged people to follow Nifco’s lead in working with schools and universities, as well as considering apprenticeships.
He said: “We are the only region with a positive balance of trade and we have the fastest rate of economic growth. Businesses can thrive here, but the skills gap is an issue that needs to be addressed now.
“Though we are doing what we can, we need other businesses in the region to follow suit. As our current skilled workforce begins to age and eventually retire, we need to have the next generation trained and ready to step up, ready to help the North East cement itself as a leading light for the industry for many more years to come.”
Research suggests that more than 8,500 skilled people across the North East will be retiring from the engineering sector before 2016, meaning that many companies will full capacity in their ability to recruit and fulfil customer demands.
North East Chamber of Commerce chief executive James Ramsbotham said: “Around 80% of our engineering firms do not have apprentices or are not engaged in the skills development agenda. It is vital that these companies explore the potential of recruiting apprentices – motivated learners who can be moulded to meet the needs of the individual business.
“I would urge all firms to consider apprenticeships. It is not only good for your business, it is also good for regional business.
“There is also an increasing appetite from schools, colleges and universities to engage with the business community and there are already some great programmes in place across our region doing this, but more businesses must get involved to ensure young people understand opportunities and careers within the North East.”