GROWTH in employment in UK manufacturing accelerated in February to its fastest pace in 33 months, a survey has revealed.
However, while remaining strong, the pace of growth of new orders and output in the manufacturing sector eased slightly.
And the survey, published yesterday by the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (Cips), showed the rate of increase of new export orders also slowed, against a backdrop of a stronger pound. A firmer sterling reduces UK manufacturers' competitiveness in overseas market-places.
Cips' purchasing managers' index (PMI) for UK manufacturing, a measure of activity which includes output, new orders, employment, suppliers' delivery times and stocks of goods purchased, rose from 56.6 in January to 56.9 in February on a seasonally-adjusted basis. This took it further above the level of 50 deemed by Cips to separate expansion from contraction.
While slightly stronger than in January, the February PMI reading was adrift of levels of 58.1 in November and 57.1 in December.
Cips' employment index for UK manufacturing climbed from 54.1 in January to 55.4 in February to signal the fastest rate of job creation since mid-2011.
Rob Dobson, senior economist at survey compiler Markit, noted capital goods producers had last month reported the strongest output growth of the three manufacturing segments covered by the survey.
He described this as positive news on the investment side of the economy.
Howard Archer, chief UK economist at consultancy IHS Global Insight, said: "The February purchasing managers' survey indicates that, while (growth of) manufacturing activity may have lost a little momentum compared to the peak levels seen in late 2013, it is performing well in the first quarter of 2014 and is well on course for further healthy growth."
He added: "The survey adds to the evidence business investment is increasingly kicking in to support growth, but there are signs that a strong pound is having some dampening impact on manufacturers' export orders, although they were still decent in February."
Samuel Tombs, UK economist at consultancy Capital Economics, said: "February's Cips manufacturing report confirmed that the sector's recovery has not been knocked off course by sterling's appreciation."
David Noble, chief executive of Cips, noted the pace of increase in new orders in February was among the fastest monthly rates in the 22-year history of the survey in spite of the slight deceleration last month.
Mr Noble said: "UK manufacturing remains remarkably resilient in February, with employment levels speeding ahead.
"Driving the trend of recovery was the rate of increase in staffing levels, which reached a 33-month high. Increasing levels of production, (growth in) new orders among the steepest in the survey's history and positive expectations helped sustain this solid growth, and are encouraging signs for the next few months."
He added: "Supporting the industry's upswing in February was the strong domestic market, which was the prime source of new business and sale volumes. Conversely to the previous month, overseas demand, despite remaining elevated, lost some of its impetus, with exchange rate fluctuations playing a part."
Mr Dobson said: "The survey suggests we should expect another quarter of robust economic growth in the opening quarter of the year. The manufacturing PMI ticked higher in February to provide welcome reassurance that the sector has weathered the storms and flooding in parts of the country during the month.
"Growth of production and new orders lost only a little momentum and (these) are still rising at above-trend rates."