Rebuilding support for making things

Redwood Comment
Published:  05 January, 2021
Dr Mike Redwood

In the midst of the pandemic in 2020, the British Government paid out about US$2 billion to keep the Arts alive in the UK. According to statements at the time, the Arts are the nation’s lifeblood; they have to be kept alive. 

By comparison, four decades ago, many governments, including the British, chose to let all failing industry collapse into closure. There was no sentimentality. Manufacturing was promptly replaced by services such as retail, finance, tourism and hospitality, and many jobs in what we now define widely as the Arts.

It is normal for growing economies to move towards a very high proportion of services. Initially in the west, problems were created by a shift to lower labour cost nations, and later, jobs were lost in big numbers as a result of mechanisation and automation. Many of the newly unemployed were not suited to retrain for equivalently paid service jobs, normally requiring computer skills. Mostly, instead of well-paid employment in manufacturing, they found themselves in long term unemployment or working for minimal wages in supermarkets.

Lack of manufacturing jobs has damaged the future of young people
The consequences of this have been playing out in global politics over the last decade and have driven some deep rifts through many of our western democracies. There have been two other outcomes which as tanners we need to note. The first is that in modern governments neither elected officials nor full-time civil servants had training in science or manufacturing. In the main, they totally lacked the skill to understand how to replace outdated manufacturing, at that time short on investment and competent managerial skills, with something modern. There are exceptions, for example Germany, which has nourished a large sector of middle-sized companies, but throughout much of the world this lack of manufacturing employment meant there was no interest in maintaining the technical training and apprenticeship route into work for young people who did not see fulfilment in a full university degree.

Subsequently, many of the young, especially males, who would have normally automatically followed their parents into manufacturing, left school early and are finding themselves in new jobs with zero hours contracts that have become a hallmark of modern western society. These earnings are frequently inadequate to keep such groups out of poverty.

If there is one major thing that the leather industry needs to do as a baseline before we start recruitment campaigns is to help reposition modern manufacture as a good thing for society, and an important economic area to have in balance with the Arts, not in competition with it. The idea that Science and the Humanities should be so separate is a curious 20th century concept. It did not exist in the 19th century, and we should not eliminate it in the 21st. Leather is a typical bridge. You can make a piece of leather with science alone, but without some understanding of colour, of smell, of touch and of visual reward, you will never achieve a high price for it.

Sir Humphrey Davy, the early 19th century British scientist, is famous for his work on leather. Perhaps he was the first true leather scientist. His public lectures were always full, well reported events. He allowed ordinary citizens to be involved in scientific discovery. We should take a moment at the start of the year to read his comment:

“Nothing is so fatal to the progress of the human mind as to suppose our views of science are ultimate; that there are no mysteries in nature; that our triumphs are complete; and that there are no new worlds to conquer.”
― Humphrey Davy

This is in simple terms why when we open our tanneries to the public, they come in hundreds to see what we do. One great new year’s resolution for leather would be to break the false boundary between science and the arts, and to make science, and especially manufacturing, popular again. A place for reasonably paid jobs and some great career paths.

Mike Redwood
January 5, 2021

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood

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