Posted on Friday 24 January 2020 by Ulster Business

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Northern Ireland’s manufacturing sector has had something of mixed bag of a year, with Brexit woes continuing and stalwarts facing uncertain futures. Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, assess the business landscape for 2020 and what’s needed to ensure economic prosperity

While writing, the first of this winter’s storms came crashing on to our shores. A dark imposing sky, savage winds and a bleak outlook for the days ahead. It’s hard to not believe it’s not a metaphor for what lies ahead in 2020.
 
There are many reasons to believe that we’re entering into choppy waters. The world economy is showing signs of distress, Brexit continues to create a significant drag, input costs are spiralling and output figures dropping faster than the air pressure.
 
When navigating your way through a storm, you need talented, committed captains to lead to take the right actions. Any luckily, despite the significant headwinds it remains in the hands of our local manufacturing leaders who can move us to not only to safety but to success.

But 2020 won’t see Brexit ‘done’. In many ways, we are only just at the start despite what politicians have been saying. Brexit will present a fundamental change in the trading relationships which our firms have enjoyed for the past 40 years, a destructive ‘no deal’ (either planned or inadvertently delivered) is possible and our firms will continue to need to prepare.
 
Brexit remains all about the politics and less about the practicalities. It’s highly probable there will be significant barriers placed on those businesses who make, move and merchandise products across this and between these islands.
 
So, our manufacturers need to be ready to flex and be nimble enough to respond to whatever destination is reached come the end of 2020. This includes, in one scenario, finally fulfilling the promise and opportunity presented by the all-island economy.
 
Whatever the new Conservative Government decides, then there is an absolute need to provide for more time to prepare. As a minimum, Parliament has a responsibility to legislate to give effect to our promised “unfettered access” for the critical GB market. The UK won’t be ready, so December 31, 2020 should not be another cliff edge.
 
If ever there was a time when we needed our local politicians making decisions for the local economy, it is now.  We need their help to navigate the year ahead. Our civil service has done an incredible job keeping the place moving in the worst of circumstances but they’re at the end of their area of authority. We need our Executive back, making decision and creating opportunities to protect jobs.
 
Whilst our local governance has been in cold storage, the world has moved on. We need a contemporary and ambitions economic policy (alongside colleagues in Hospitality Ulster and Retail NI, we have presented some ideas in our Trade NI plan launched in September and in our General Election manifesto), scrutiny and action on energy to address spiralling costs, skills investment and a roadmap which helps direct the investments which the new leadership of Invest NI and other agencies will deliver to protect and grow firms.

More important that anything Government at home or in the UK can do, it is the actions and leadership in our local firms which will more profoundly define where they and we all end up next year.
 
The expectations of those entering the world of work are changing. Wages and job security are becoming less important with welfare, flexibility and the contribution which individuals and businesses can make in the world are becoming they key motivating factors. Many businesses are reacting to this and whilst it is perhaps more difficult for a production environment, there are many local manufacturers who have created environments where people can meet their career and societal ambitions.
 
Increasingly our economy needs people who can solve problems, manage people, negotiate and co-ordinate with others whilst bringing creativity, critical thinking and a commitment to provide the best possible service.
 
This is leading to a greater investment in leadership capability throughout their businesses. This drives productivity and prosperity for the business and for the individuals involved.
 
Regardless of the environment and trading relationships political leadership in Belfast, London or indeed Brussels or Washington leave us with, it will be leaders in not only boardrooms but factory floors who will continue the remarkable rebirth of local manufacturing. Recognising and being responsible for their contribution to the world, creating more work and wealth and building strong local economies and communities.

It will be those leaders who will ensure a safe and successful passage through 2020.

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