Manufacturing will grow faster than the overall UK economy next year but much-needed business from overseas markets is looking shakier, according to an industry report published on Monday.
The buoyant forecast from UK manufacturers' organisation EEF marks a turnaround for a sector the government has repeatedly championed as an engine for growth, but which has struggled to emerge from recession.
News that orders and output are now rising and that UK factories plan to ramp up hiring and investment will be welcomed by George Osborne as he prepares to outline his latest plans to boost the recovery in his autumn statement this week.
But EEF's latest survey with accountants BDO showed exports were weaker than expected in recent months on the back of slower growth from some emerging markets and sluggishness in the eurozone, the UK's most important market.
EEF chief economist Lee Hopley said: "Over the course of the year we have seen a definite turnaround in prospects for manufacturing and this looks set to continue into next year. This increased confidence is evident in companies looking to increase their headcount and, most importantly for balanced growth, step up their investment.
"However, uncertainties in the global economy remain and a sustained recovery is not secure. As a result, growth must remain a priority for government over the remainder of this parliament, starting with the autumn statement this week."
The group, which has 6,000 member companies, says the risk comes from an uncertain export outlook. But it still thinks the sector will grow by 2.7% in 2014 compared with 2.4% for the economy overall. EEF thinks that this year the manufacturing sector will have contracted 0.1% while the wider economy grows 1.4%.
While that still puts that manufacturing sector in recession this year, the prediction marks a significant upgrade from the last estimate of a 0.5% decline. The group said that reflected a run of improving news. Its own quarterly survey showed a majority of firms reporting growth in both output and orders, though these measures slipped back from highs seen over the summer. Within the sector, the strongest results came from motor vehicle and electronics companies.
A separate report on Monday echoes recent optimism about new jobs being created by the private sector. Business lobby group the CBI says medium-sized businesses are helping to drive the recovery but that the government must do more to help them access finance, find skilled workers and get support to export.
Despite accounting for less than 2% of the private sector, medium-sized businesses have created jobs at twice the pace of large companies, the CBI said. They added 185,000 jobs between March 2010 and March 2013, a rise of 4.1%, and now employ 16% of the UK's total workforce.
Medium-sized firms, classed as having 50-499 staff and a turnover of £10m-£100m, have also grown their turnover by 7% – more than double that of smaller firms and large companies. They now contribute more than £300bn to the economy, but the lobby group says government support could boost that significantly.
"This hugely positive picture is reflected up and down the country where medium-sized businesses are major local employers, in many cases helping to offset public sector job losses during the downturn," said CBI director general John Cridland.
"With better access to a range of growth finance options, improved training and research support, and help to break into new export markets – these firms could be worth an extra £20bn to our economy by 2020."
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