Stuart Patrick: Glasgow’s maritime sector needs an influx of talent

The 2022 Maritime UK Awards took place at the Glasgow Science Center last Thursday with Secretary of State for International Trade Anne-Marie Trevelyan delivering the keynote address, highlighting the recent launch of the updated National Shipbuilding Strategy of the British government.

Sponsors contributing to the ceremony included BAE Systems, with its long history of Clyde shipbuilding, the City of Glasgow College, whose Riverside campus is one of the UK’s leading nautical training centres, engineering specialists maritime Malin Group, which aim to bring nearly 1,000 jobs to the development of their Scottish Marine Technology Park at the former Carless site in West Dunbartonshire, and the University of Strathclyde with its global center for naval architecture and technology Marine. Maritime industries retain an important place in Glasgow’s economy.

Over 20 years ago I was a member of the team supporting the Clyde Dockyard Task Force, set up by the Minister for Business, Transport and Lifelong Learning , Wendy Alexander, to address job losses on the Clyde. Many of the issues raised then remain features of the British government’s new shipbuilding strategy.

Balancing the Department of Defense’s competitive procurement requirements with the goal of a thriving shipbuilding industry will always be tricky. The new strategy announces a National Shipbuilding Office (NSO), reporting to the Minister of Defense to oversee all government shipbuilding work, while there is to be an office in the UK Government Center in Edinburgh to establish a direct link with Scottish shipbuilding. Alongside the ONS, there will be an industry-led shipbuilding forum to boost industry competitiveness.

How these interact will be crucial. The constant change in government procurement strategies, particularly in the allocation of ship lots, compromises the ability of shipbuilders to achieve learning curve productivity and make the necessary investments to modernize facilities.

The centerpiece of the renewed strategy must therefore surely be the 30-year pipeline of new ships, primarily for the Royal Navy but also for other government departments and devolved administrations.

The document explicitly recognizes that a stop and start approach hurts the industry and commits to a “continuous shipbuilding pipeline”. One wonders how the appalling circumstances in Ukraine will reinforce the critical need for this pipeline.

The extent to which domestic government orders help secure exports appears to have improved since 2001. There were concerns then that the Royal Navy’s highly advanced specifications could make it difficult to sell overseas. However, BAE Systems is currently building the first of three Type 26 destroyers at Govan and, with support from the British government, it already has orders for nine from the Australian government and 15 from the Canadian. Babcock has also just sold three frigates to Poland.

There is a welcome acknowledgment in the strategy that local industry clustering needs to be supported and the Clyde is recognized as an important focus. The Scottish Government’s Clyde Mission initiative is already actively supporting the cluster.

Perhaps, however, the biggest challenge facing the industry is in stark contrast to where we were in 2001. The task then was to minimize job losses, but today every business in the Clyde maritime cluster is looking for talent. The growth of the cluster will depend on skills and the maritime sector is another crier of new workers. It must depend on whether the people of Glasgow believe that the maritime industry has an exciting future. The shipbuilding strategy makes this clear.

Stuart Patrick is Chief Executive of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce