Here are the lessons we learned in business in East Anglia in 2017
PUBLISHED: 16:32 29 December 2017 | UPDATED: 17:33 11 January 2018
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The past 12 months have made for yet another turbulent year for businesses in East Anglia – but it’s not been without its successes. Business editor MARK SHIELDS looks back at some of the lessons we’ve learned in 2017.
The Brexit fog isn’t clearing
The many commentators who began the year hedging their bets with the truism that the only certainty was uncertainty were proved emphatically and repeatedly correct.
Among businesses, the destabilising aftermath of the EU referendum in June 2016 was just beginning to give way to the straightforward pragmatism of rolling with the punches and getting on with it, when the surprise general election put paid to that at a stroke.
Once again the day-to-day considerations of businesses were pushed to one side in favour of political posturing. When the dust had finally settled and the Tories’ majority had disappeared, there were legitimate questions about how little serious economic discussion there had been on the campaign trail – especially given it was the over-riding Conservative message of the 2015 victory.
How much the competing voices of business can impose themselves on the shape of the Brexit negotiations – and bring public opinion with them – will go a long way to determining the overall success of any trade deal.
The skills shortage is real
Brexit may have dominated the national news headlines, but for many businesses on the ground there were more pressing concerns.
Once again, recruitment was chief among them – how to find the right people with the right skills for the right price.
Some industries – for example, construction – have been grappling with skills shortages for years, but there are few sectors resistant to this pressure. Companies in tech, engineering and logistics all warned during the year that they are struggling to find the people they need.
With experienced talent so in-demand, those with specialisms such as cyber security found themselves able to name their price as companies faced an arms race to keep hold of their key people.
More clarity on the future of EU nationals after March 2019 may encourage them to stay, but will not be enough to prevent this being yet another key theme in 2018.
People power is on the rise
It’s long been fashionable to say that a company’s greatest asset is its people, but leaders have made a concerted push to walk the talk this year.
Perhaps inspired by the challenges of recruitment, many firms were keen to show how they listened to and engaged with their staff, putting them at the centre of their business and offering them power over decisions ranging from working hours to community.
Such initiatives not only serve to keep existing staff satisfied, but also act as a powerful recruitment tool when trying to attract new talent.
Motivated employees are more productive, say the companies who are leading the way – so let’s hope we see this refreshing attitude spreading even further over the next year.
Key sectors are under pressure
Few sectors have escaped unscathed from the past year, but it has undeniably been harder for some than others.
Manufacturers have taken a hit from the rising cost of imports (though exporters have seen a boost), corporate cost-cutting and the slump in consumer confidence, with several high-profile casualties resulting.
In recent weeks, drinks company Britvic, furniture maker Multiyork and wholesaler Palmer & Harvey have announced a total of more than 500 jobs will be lost, while the Construction Industry Training Board wants to move its 575-strong head office out of Norfolk.
Retail, one of the region’s biggest employers, has also been hit hard by rising wages and costs, while shoppers have seen inflation and stagnant wages eating away at their spending power.
There was good news for the oil and gas industry, however, which showed signs of life after a tough three years, and East Anglia’s offshore wind industry continues to lead the renewables revolution.
We must learn to look outwards
Our region has so much to be proud of – world-leading clusters ranging from life sciences to agriculture, a skilled and loyal workforce, outstanding universities, innovative start-ups, family businesses with unrivalled history, awe-inspiring landscapes and a quality of life that means many incomers never leave.
So how do we take that message beyond our borders?
Because Norfolk and Suffolk must learn how to do that much better if they are to attract new jobs, new investment and new skills into the region.
And if we don’t learn how to entice that new blood – the companies which want to relocate, the students who want to start careers, the investors who want to back success – then other parts of the country will steal a march. They are already doing so.
The LEP and county councils have already been working to build a national and international profile for the East.
In 2018, it’s time to stand up, back our region and be proud of what we have to offer.