Like most of us I suspect, the second half of December is a time to reflect on the ups and downs of the year nearly past and look ahead to the opportunities and challenges of the one coming.

Of the uncertainties that this year has thrown up, the one I expected to be clear on by now was Brexit – after all, four-and-a-half years have passed and we have 10 days to go until what we were led to believe was the final, final, definitely this time, deadline.

So, looking ahead I will start elsewhere, somewhere that there can be optimism that a path to recovery is not only possible but probable too.

Working in a sector based on science and technology, I can’t help but feel positive when wondering at what effort must have been expended by the teams of scientists and technicians working around the world to deliver in 10 months Covid19 vaccines that could normally have taken many years.

Six of these developed vaccines are now approved by countries, with

a host of others in various stages of development coming behind. Manufacturing teams are rising to the challenge of how to scale up high volume production for a product that didn’t exist a few months ago, enabling the complex logistics of mass immunisation, and crucially a future easing of the restrictions that have been critical to public health whilst being deeply damaging to our economy.

For many parts of the economy, and engineering and manufacturing especially, the recovery from this recession looks likely to be different from all others, in a way that many might regard as an accidental bonus of Covid-19.

The focus on climate change, and the actions that will take us to net zero, de-carbonisation or a green economy has never been sharper, and this is before the building momentum that COP26 will bring as its delayed appearance in Glasgow next November now looks highly likely.

Both the UK and Scottish governments’ policy focus for recovery has been firmly on enabling a move to technologies and skillsets that will contribute to meeting targets that increasingly carry a language of “sprinting” and “racing” that reflect the collective urgency.

The Scottish Government’s own Manufacturing Recovery Plan is open for consultation now, having been built around the need for de-carbonisation based on input from a wide range of stakeholders including ourselves.

In doing so we are confident we represent the views of our industry who have told us they recognise the climate emergency is real and requires an urgent response, and recognise that the infrastructure investment required in energy, transport, food production – every aspect of our lives – to meet this challenge presents substantial and real opportunity for diversification and growth.

What it will also require, however, is a change of mindset to maximise the proportion of those solutions that are home-grown and manufactured, particularly in public procurement processes, and honestly, a better appetite for balanced risk.

Every well mentored engineer will have heard that if you don’t make mistakes you won’t make anything, and that means spending more energy in learning from those mistakes and rapidly moving on, than carrying out an endless post-mortem and remaining in stasis while the world move on around us.

In a final view forward, I cannot ignore Brexit, as much as you and I would like me to. 

In the last few weeks, talking with anxious companies struggling to ensure readiness for the first day of 2021, I almost convinced myself that a Trade deal was almost a secondary concern against the cost and delay that the additional administrative burdens of Brexit will bring, deal or no-deal. 

For sure there are tariff implications that will seriously damage many companies, but they are at least prescriptive and reasonably clear unlike many aspects of this impact.  The first thing that made me come back to my senses in this respect was the use of gunboat diplomacy to up the ante in an already tense negotiation, as this reminded me that people do business not companies, and if we cannot find a way to strike a deal with our largest trading partner then what impact does that have on the relationships on which business depends.  The second is that we simply must make a trade deal with the World’s largest trading bloc sometime - sooner or later - as it would be ridiculous to not do so given our geographical proximity to the EU.  Why not do it now?


Paul Sheerin is chief executive of Scottish Engineering.