Head of the British Ceramic Confederation talks transferable skills

Materials World magazine
1 Nov 2008

Dr Laura Cohen has had a diverse career, progressing from a research scientist to the head of a major UK trade association. Gary Price talks to the new Chief Executive Designate of the British Ceramic Confederation about the challenges that lie ahead for the industry and the importance of transferable skills.

Seized opportunities are the backbone of Dr Laura Cohen’s career. This outlook will stand her in good stead in her new role as Chief Executive Designate of the British Ceramic Confederation (BCC). She faces immense challenges in supporting and representing an industry that is dealing with soaring energy prices and striving to remain competitive in a turbulent financial global market.

‘My academic background had equipped me well for the manufacturing industry so I was able to move between a broad range of technical disciplines in my first few years in industry and make a practical contribution,’ says Cohen. ‘It is important that academic institutions provide employable people that are literate, numerate and armed to do real jobs, yet have sufficient breadth to adapt to a range of possibilities in the future.’

Cohen’s career has criss-crossed from roles in research to project management, as well as overseeing regulatory policy. She has successfully intertwined academic research with a more commercial outlook, which was enhanced by embarking on a two-year Manufacturing Professionalism Programme at Warwick University, UK, from 2001-03.

‘The course covered everything from business strategy to finance, and managing people to product development, so it gave me a range of skills,’ she explains. ‘I’ve since gone back to teach on a couple of modules, particularly on making business cases, which I think is something that everyone in industry needs to be able to do effectively.’ Making those cases and quantifying their potential effects is useful and can be helpful when talking to regulators to explain the impact of their decisions.’

Opening doors

For as long as Cohen can remember, she has been intrigued by science. ‘I recall reading a lot of books about science and scientists, and thinking, “I’d like to understand more”. I was fascinated about what made things work and was in a school environment where we were encouraged to study science.’

This curiosity led Cohen to study for a PhD in Materials Science and Metallurgy at Cambridge University, UK. 'I enjoyed looking at microstructures and being able to explain what was happening to a material, for example, corrosion and mechanical damage, by linking this to what was happening at near atomic levels. It was about practical science, working on real industrial problems rather than abstract ideas.’

Putting it into practice

Her desire to work in the ‘real world’ was illustrated during her tenure at AstraZeneca, headquartered in London, UK, from 1994-2008, where Cohen began to take an interest in legislative issues while working as an International Packaging Project Manager, and later moving to Regulatory Policy and Intelligence.

‘We worked closely with trade associations in the UK and Europe to ensure that the industry’s voice was heard on a number of issues, such as legislation implementing Braille in pharmaceutical packaging and labelling,’ she explains. ‘We pushed for a more sensible timescale for implementation.’ Cohen also representated the pharmaceutical industry on the UK Cabinet Office Better Regulation task force, concerned with labelling regulations for medicines. 'These experiences opened my eyes to the excellent work that trade associations do and from there my interest in the regulatory process grew and grew.’

A new challenge

It was this experience that made Cohen an attractive candidate for Chief Executive of the BCC. During this difficult time for the UK ceramics sector, with escalating energy costs and the effects of the credit crunch on the housing market, the heavy clay industry (bricks and roof tiles) is hit the hardest. Cohen believes her primary role is to represent the industry on key legislation and promote the sector.

The implication of the UK’s growing gas import dependency is that it must increasingly compete in global markets. ‘The ceramics industry is a major user of energy, and fuel bills can represent up to 35% of production cost,’ says Cohen. ‘There has been an entirely favourable report over the summer on energy prices from the Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform select committee. The British Ceramic Confederation wants to see the recommendations implemented – and the market working well. The UK ceramics sector has invested heavily in energy recently and probably is the most energy efficient in the world, yet, in the current climate, companies have been forced to rationalise production to remain viable, to the detriment of local employment prospects. It is important that the industry becomes even more energy-efficient, moving towards a low carbon economy.

‘However,’ she continues, ‘the regulatory system needs to be a level playing field with UK targets and taxes similar to those elsewhere in Europe. If this doesn’t happen, UK manufacturing jobs may be lost and we would rely on importing goods – made in a less energy efficient way and with higher carbon emissions from transport.’

However, she is optimistic about the industry’s future, and encouraged by projects such as Adoptic, a European R&D venture where the BCC is working with academic partners and SMEs to assist ceramic companies in identifying and selecting appropriate additives, and understanding manufacturing faults in ceramics through an online database.

‘I want to work with companies to ensure the UK industry remains competitive, by making sure that the manufacturing sector is not at a disadvantage compared with manufacturers overseas, and by encouraging companies to invest in new products and technologies to meet customer and environmental needs,’ insists Cohen.

Technical innovations

Cohen is also delighted by the world-class research in ceramics being undertaken by UK universities, such as Sheffield, Manchester, Cambridge and Surrey. ‘Our technical ceramics industry is innovative and is working with universities to develop a range of complex materials such as components for medical devices, aerospace and automotive applications, and semiconductor processing,’ she says.‘Global companies are choosing to source their manufacturing and technology development in the UK because of this.’

She adds, ‘This has led to a wide range of employment opportunities for graduates, particularly in the technical and industrial sector. I think all sectors offer some real challenges for those interested in production technology and management, as well as design, marketing, IT and logistics’.

The long-term situation in the UK ceramics industry is therefore far from ‘doom and gloom’. ‘We have an industry in the UK that is efficient and effective, but for the ceramics sector to survive and thrive we need the economy, the housing market and the energy market to function well.’

And her advice to young graduates? Be open minded to the possibilities that might be out there, keep your technical and professional skills current and be prepared to develop new ones. ‘What I’m doing at the moment is visiting our members to understand the industry and its priorities. It is about working with colleagues in the UK and overseas to keep skills up-to-date and share good practice. It is also about taking on more challenging roles and taking responsibility for your own development and personal leadership.’

Up close

Education – MA in Natural Sciences and PhD in Materials Science and Metallurgy, both from Cambridge University, UK. Manufacturing Professionalism Programme, Warwick University, UK.

Employment highlights – Senior Research Scientist, Imperial Chemical Industries’ Electrochemistry Business Development Group, Runcorn, UK, 1988-89. International Packaging Project Manager, AstraZeneca 2000-06. Associate Director, Regulatory Intelligence, AstraZeneca Regulatory Affairs 2006-08. Chief Executive Designate, British Ceramic Confederation, Stoke-on-Trent, UK, since September 2008.

Chartered Engineer and a Fellow of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining.

Further information: The British Ceramic Confederation