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Steel crisis could cause industrial skills crunch

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Britain’s Steel Crisis could trigger a wider industrial skills emergency, and must be tackled – say specialist engineering and construction recruiter Randstad CPE. Expert workers themselves agree. 

In a snap poll of specialist engineering workers, an overwhelming 94 percent support some form of action by the UK government to render Port Talbot and the UK steel industry sustainable and profitable. More than a third (35 percent) of expert engineering and construction workers feel the best course of action is to impose tariffs of some kind on foreign steel imports, such as those from China. In the eyes of specialist workers, this is ahead of other possible courses of action, from a ‘buy-British’ policy for all public sector projects, exempt steel makers from green levies or business rates, and the arguably more drastic option of nationalisation (backed by just 14 percent). This is also supported by the fundamentals of steel demand and supply in the United Kingdom – and the much larger number of jobs that indirectly depend on related skills and industry. 

Owen Goodhead, MD of Randstad Construction, Property & Engineering, comments: “Jobs and skills simply don’t behave like volatile commodity markets. Once you have a skills shortage, it is here to stay. Steel itself could just be the tip of a terrible iceberg – and the start of a far longer industrial skills emergency. “Today the price of steel is low because of an error of oversupply on the other side of the world. If that was a permanent factor, we might need to think twice about trying to compete. It is not. But as a result we are talking about permanently shutting down our own centres of global engineering expertise. “A whole ecosystem of specialist firms is dependent on the expertise that comes with a flourishing steel industry, just as many of them are also dependent on a sustainable source of steel itself. Our economy in ten years’ time will depend on the support for talent and ambition we can offer workers now – as employers and at all levels of government. The British economy of the 2020s will barely remember the latest blips and eddies of last week’s steel price. Will cheap steel be available from elsewhere in 2026? And more importantly – will the engineering jobs, the strategic defence contractors, the rail workers or the much-needed construction capacity be here in a decade’s time, if Britain jettisons its industrial heartland in 2016? 

“Competing with a fundamentally better competitor is a bad idea – but throwing in the towel after a couple of hard knocks is just as shameful. Against unfair and aggressive competition, dumping steel in European markets at a loss, there is space for a constructive and proportionate response. This isn’t controversial in other areas – for example the public accepts supplying a large proportion of our own food as a ‘strategic’ priority, and subsidise British agriculture happily. But steel is treated differently. Even as France declares the yoghurt company Danone a ‘strategic industry’, British ministers are too scared to tiptoe towards the letter of the law. Their Chinese equivalents would have no such scruples.

“There is so much more that could be done to support valuable workers, boost industrial productivity and invest in the human capital we will always need for the future. Meanwhile, Britain needs millions of tonnes of steel every year – and it will have to come from somewhere. This country produces both too little steel, and too few skilled people to feed our industrial economy, and this combination is forming into a growing Skills Crisis.” 

Green steel to feed domestic demand?
For expert workers in engineering and construction sectors, the second most popular course of action for addressing the Steel Crisis is mandating that all public projects, such as defence contracts including warships and infrastructure projects including new rail lines, must use UK-made steel, rather than imported alternatives. One third of specialist workers (31 percent) said this policy of buy-British was their preferred solution to the Steel Crisis.

Minimising the costs of production also define the agenda for many specialist engineering and construction workers, of whom 7 percent say the best way to save UK steel making is exempting steel firms from certain green levies. This tallies with official measures. Including taxes, according to the UK government’s own figures, industrial electricity prices stood at 9.38p/kWh in 2014 – or 20 percent higher than the average across the EU-15 nations. Meanwhile, a further 7 percent of specialist workers say that the government should exept steel firms from business rates if this can ensure the survival of the industry. 

Owen Goodhead continues, “Environmental considerations are hugely important, and an area for the UK to lead the world. And this could be done far better – through intelligent re-use of scrap steel, with lower carbon emissions and lower energy use overall. Steel could be part of a plan for sustainable industry, infrastructure and sustainable energy for the long-term. “Completing the recycling loop isn’t just a matter of washing up cans and putting the right bins out. We need to actually make something valuable from these materials too. Recycling and efficient use of resources can be the difference between a profit and a loss, a business and a failure – or a job and redundancy. Britain must modernise its steel industry if it is to survive, and if the country can maintain all the jobs and livelihoods connected to a strong industrial spirit. “Progress can’t just be a word consigned to our history books. We can continue to lead the world in expert science jobs and engineering jobs, enjoy world-class infrastructure and work in shining steel office blocks. But all this depends on the two inseparable issues – of steel and skills.” 

Far wider threat for jobs in Britain’s industrial base
While around 24,000 jobs[1] are directly involved in the manufacture of steel in the UK, or around 35,000[2] including steel processing, the country could face a knock-on effect on millions of other jobs in the wider production sector of the economy.

Just within the manufacturing and extraction sectors this accounts for around 8 percent of all jobs in the UK or 2.7 million jobs[3]. Also incorporating the highly steel-dependent energy and construction sectors takes the total to over six million jobs dependent on the United Kingdom’s industrial base. On an international basis, the latest comparable figures put the proportion of UK jobs in such industrial sectors at 19 percent of all workers[4]. Since 51 percent of the entire UK population are part of the workforce[5], this means that one-in-ten Britons (10 percent of all adults and children) is a worker in an industrial sector. On this basis, UK industry accounts for a grand total of 6.2 million jobs. Industry still matters to the UK economy, even as domestic steel production has struggled to maintain output in proportion to the wider ecosystem of British manufacturing, production and construction output. Randstad analysis (see appendix) shows China’s heavily industrialised economy employs 457 workers for every thousand tonnes of steel output, but in the UK this already stands at 520 industrial workers per thousand tonnes of steel produced. Without Port Talbot’s 5 million tonne annual capacity, the UK ratio would be stretched towards levels seen in countries such as Romania or Argentina, with around half the GDP per capita of the UK. 

British ‘steel deficit’ amounts to 2.2 million tonnes
The UK consumes a total of 14 million tonnes of finished steel equivalent; between finished consumer goods, construction, infrastructure, manufacturing, defence and all other uses. Per population, this means the UK economy requires 220 kilos of steel for every single person in the UK (or approximately three times the average body weight) every single year. However, in absolute terms, UK steel production stands at 11.9 million tonnes per year, in the latest comparable figures. This means that, even before the effects of the Steel Crisis – and as a minimum starting point – Britain faces a 2.2 million tonne steel deficit every single year. This is equivalent to a supply gap of 34 kilos per Briton per year that on a net basis will need to be imported, or around the weight of three bicycles[6] worth of steel each. Despite this, the manufacture of steel is facing a serious crisis of profitability. 

‘Scrap surplus’ could be part of the solution
Production of ready-to-use steel in the UK could be far higher still, since the country does not handle its own scrap. The latest comparable figures show net exports of scrap steel amounting to 6.6 million tonnes leaving the country every single year. This is the same as net scrap exports from France and Germany combined and puts the UK behind only Japan and the United States. On per capita terms, Britain’s annual ‘scrap surplus’ amounts to 104 kilos of potentially usable second-hand steel shipped out the UK for every single adult and child. To extend the previous measure, this amounts to nine bicycles worth of steel exported as scrap for every single adult and child in the UK every single year.

Steel-making methods are partly to blame for the mismatch. The United Kingdom produces its new steel mainly from imported iron ore, even while exporting scrap, because 84 percent of UK steel production is currently conducted through oxygen-blown furnaces. This is in contrast to more modern electric arc furnaces which can take in a far higher proportion of scrap steel as raw material. Compared to other major steel-producing nations, this ratio puts Britain level with Hungary which also produces 84 percent of its steel through such primary methods and behind only Austria, Czechia (the Czech Republic) and China. Not far off the UK, 93 percent of Chinese steel is made though the basic oxygen process. 

While the remaining 16 percent of UK steel production already takes place in more modern electric arc furnaces (amounting to less than 2 million tonnes of steel each year) this could rise towards 65 percent of UK production or around 8 million tonnes, without needing any new imported raw material – if only the UK could re-use its current exports of scrap steel.

One possible reason for this ongoing inefficiency is the electric energy required to produce steel from the secondary route of electric arc methods. By contrast, oxygen-blown steel production can be more immediately polluting, but is heated primarily through combustion of carbon instead of costly electricity.

For UK steel in particular, this is often blamed on especially high energy costs. Compared to a country such as Sweden, where electric arc furnaces produce a third of steel output mainly from scrap steel, the UK’s industrial energy costs are 90 percent higher.

Owen Goodhead concludes, “Modernising the steel industry should be a natural aspiration. Our car makers turned around a basket-case industry in the 1970s to one of record car exports in 2015 – achieved through modernisation of production methods, and leading the global technology race when it comes to the quality of the finished product. The same could be true for our steel-makers. “This should never be thought of as a short-term fix. No entrepreneur would invest that way. Instead steel must be profitable and part of a long-term sustainable economic plan for the industrial skills base of the future. How will we have a car industry without steel, or the aspiration and education that goes along with it? How can we have aircraft carriers without steel? How will oil and gas jobs and rail jobs be sustainable without steel? Or a glittering financial services sector in great steel towers, without steel? How will we have the much-vaunted ‘balanced economic recovery’ without steel?”

[3] Office for National Statistics, Employment by sector, 2015:

[6] This would amount to a weight of 11.3kg per bicycle, while 10-14kg is generally the weight of an average road bicycle with a steel frame, depending on era and design:

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