Positive data all round: but don't forget the service industry

Green shoots in this sector are just as important.

Last week’s manufacturing and service sector data caused many sighs of relief, in Threadneedle Street, in Westminster, and also in boardrooms up and down the country, as evidence built of a sustained economic recovery in the UK. However, as is often the case, many were noticeably more enthusiastic about information from the "making things" part of the economy, than from the "doing things" part.

Much of that interest in manufacturing can be attributed to the perception that manufacturers offer the solution to the UK’s trade deficit. However, while it is certainly be part of the solution, the service sector has an equally important part to play in ensuring the UK’s international competitiveness.

The UK leads the world in many specialist and high-quality areas of manufacturing, but we also possess genuine excellence in the services sector. The UK has world leaders in media, marketing, publishing, entertainment, accountancy, law, technology, scientific research, business consulting and more. Those are all industries capable of providing knowledge and expertise at an economically significant level for global consumption, and helping to secure a sustainable recovery for the UK economy.

And to laud our professional economy should not take away from those parts of the service economy that do not export – the retail parks, the high streets and the back offices of our country. Such enterprises are often condemned by those wont to complain that our economy is the weaker for having such a high proportion of service sector businesses, but this is wrong. A manufacturer that does not export still adds value to the economy, and the same is true of a wholly domestic service business.  The contribution of such a business is not measured in the value of exports, but in the efficiency of the business, and the support it can render to its customers in the wider economy. Such businesses are as worthy of investment as any other and, as we plan for a brighter economic future, we will need to plan for the long-term future of both manufacturing and services, and not just those services with an international operation.

So, how should we go about preserving and enhancing the UK’s success in services – to make sure that our international companies compete with the world’s best, and that our non-professional services add the maximum value to the economy? Well, in this case, service industries should take their cue from the manufacturing economy, where leaders have long called for a fundamental change in the skills and knowledge that young people take from their basic education.

Much of the UK’s education system is world-class but, if it is to sustain a world-class economy, then ongoing reforms will need to ensure a greater focus on science, technology, engineering, and maths (otherwise known as STEM) skills. In fact, that is one change that could help secure the successful future of both manufacturing and services. STEM skills are now just as important for service workers as they are for those in manufacturing. The business world is now so reliant on technology that few processes can be properly understood without some knowledge of the enterprise systems and applications that make them possible.

Furthermore, it would be a huge mistake to think that such understanding is only relevant to those destined to be managers and technicians. In my work, I see all levels of the service economy – one day I might be showing a publishing CEO how technology can help her company engage with new audiences, the next I might be advising a telecoms customer experience manager on how to keep his contact centre staff motivated and appropriately skilled. Whether speaking with MBA graduates or school leavers, my team and I see that the skills and knowledge required in the modern workplace are changing quickly.  Whether for a customer service representative being asked to advise on appropriate apps for a small-business phone user, or a lawyer who sees her case turn on the capabilities of data protection infrastructure, some level of technical knowledge is often indispensable.

Successful businesses and successful economies are not just built on good management, but on good work, and good work comes from a workforce with skills and knowledge appropriate to the world in which it operates. If we want the British workforce to be like this, then we should make sure that the foundation for such skills and knowledge is laid at the earliest opportunity.  Doing so will have equal benefits for both services and manufacturing, helping us preserve our global leadership in the creative and professional industries, and making sure that the consumer facing service businesses we use every day remain fit for purpose.

Photograph: Getty Images

Sanjiv Gossain is the SVP & Managing Director at Cognizant

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Theresa May defies the right by maintaining 0.7% aid pledge

The Prime Minister offers rare continuity with David Cameron but vows to re-examine how the money is spent. 

From the moment Theresa May became Prime Minister, there was speculation that she would abandon the UK's 0.7 per cent aid pledge. She appointed Priti Patel, a previous opponent of the target, as International Development Secretary and repeatedly refused to extend the commitment beyond this parliament. When an early general election was called, the assumption was that 0.7 per cent would not make the manifesto.

But at a campaign event in her Maidenhead constituency, May announced that it would. "Let’s be clear – the 0.7 per cent commitment remains, and will remain," she said in response to a question from the Daily Telegraph's Kate McCann. But she added: "What we need to do, though, is to look at how that money will be spent, and make sure that we are able to spend that money in the most effective way." May has left open the possibility that the UK could abandon the OECD definition of aid and potentially reclassify defence spending for this purpose.

Yet by maintaining the 0.7 per cent pledge, May has faced down her party's right and title such as the Sun and the Daily Mail. On grammar schools, climate change and Brexit, Tory MPs have cheered the Prime Minister's stances but she has now upheld a key component of David Cameron's legacy. George Osborne was one of the first to praise May's decision, tweeting: "Recommitment to 0.7% aid target very welcome. Morally right, strengthens UK influence & was key to creating modern compassionate Conservatives".

A Conservative aide told me that the announcement reflected May's personal commitment to international development, pointing to her recent speech to International Development staff. 

But another Cameron-era target - the state pension "triple lock" - appears less secure. Asked whether the government would continue to raise pensions every year, May pointed to the Tories' record, rather than making any future commitment. The triple lock, which ensures pensions rise in line with average earnings, CPI inflation or by 2.5 per cent (whichever is highest), has long been regarded by some Conservatives as unaffordable. 

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has hinted that the Tories' "tax lock", which bars increases in income tax, VAT and National Insurance, could be similarly dropped. He said: "I’m a Conservative. I have no ideological desire to to raise taxes. But we need to manage the economy sensibly and sustainably. We need to get the fiscal accounts back into shape.

"It was self evidently clear that the commitments that were made in the 2015 manifesto did and do today constrain the ability to manage the economy flexibly."

May's short speech to workers at a GlaxoSmithKline factory was most notable for her emphasis that "the result is not certain" (the same message delivered by Jeremy Corbyn yesterday). As I reported on Wednesday, the Tories fear that the belief that Labour cannot win could reduce their lead as voters conclude there is no need to turn out. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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