Retail jobs are disappearing at a worrying rate. The retail sector – the largest private-sector employer at over 3m people – lost 57,000 jobs in the year to June 2019, according to the British Retail Consortium.
The rapid growth of online shopping, high rental costs and a drop in consumer confidence are but a few issues that have seen plummeting high street sales and a rise in job losses.
The alarm bells of automation will be ringing in the ears of many in the retail workforce too, with the ONS estimating that two-thirds of cashier retail jobs at high risk of automation. This follows years of sweeping supermarket slashes, with 25 percent of checkout assistant positions disappearing between 2011 and 2017, according to the ONS.
As retail struggles to keep up with the changing landscape of commerce in the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, maintaining Britain’s record-high employment will be an enormous challenge.
But building a workforce fit for the future may require looking to our past.
In the 1950s, manufacturing represented 40 percent of the UK’s workforce, producing a third of our national output. Although the sector has struggled in recent months (owing largely to Brexit uncertainty), manufacturing has seen somewhat of a renaissance in the last half-decade.
145,000 manufacturing jobs were added between 2013 and 2018, bringing the figure up to 2.7m in total. This might seem a modest mend given that the sector employed 7m people in 1971, but after decades of decline, manufacturing is still showing signs of life.
And this will only be bolstered by the news that British Steel is to be bought by Chinese firm Jingye, in a deal that could protect 4,000 British jobs.
But it’s not the only recent news that should excite the sector. Last week, Homes England announced a £30m investment into modular manufacturer ilke Homes. Shortly after, the government appointed Mark Farmer, Cast Consultancy founder and CEO, as MMC Champion. These moves demonstrate the government’s confidence that the modern methods of construction (MMC) will play a vital role in the future of housebuilding in the UK.
The construction industry, like retail, is struggling. The industry is proving incapable of meeting the government’s target of building 300,000 new homes a year, with just 170,000 new homes built for the year ending June 2019 – incredibly, the highest number in over a decade. Plugging this 130,000 shortfall requires new solutions, and given the superior speed and quality at which modular manufacturing can deliver, there is considerable confidence that the sector will provide the answers.
Modular manufacturing differs from construction in a number of ways, but crucially it is less reliant on skilled labour – something the construction industry is severely lacking, with up to 500,000 workers expected to retire from the Construction industry over the next 10 years, according to Arcadis. Instead, workers can be trained-up on the job in skills such as engineering, carpentry, manufacturing and construction. This is precisely what is being taught at the ilke Academy, the UK’s first onsite modular training facility.
With the help of the ilke Academy, ilke Homes is creating hundreds of new local and sustainable jobs and will have a 650-strong workforce come the end of the year. These workers can now become the face of the future and make the UK a manufacturing powerhouse once again.
Women, who have been hit hardest by the retail slump, are not being put off by the sector either. In what was once seen as a men-only industry, ilke Homes expect a third of their workforce to be women by next year.
With the high street jobs crunch showing no signs of slowing, and a housebuilding industry that needs new faces, reshaping employment away from the retail sector and more towards modular manufacturing could solve both these issues.
This migration has already begun, with former Asda pizza maker Rachel Hawksworth telling the BBC that she is relishing her new role as a tiler at ilke Homes.