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Scottish Parliament Speech: Skills Strategy (January 2010)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

Anyone who has ever seen George Bernard Shaw's play 'Man and Superman' will remember the dialogue between Jack Tanner - that Don Juan figure - and his chauffeur, Henry Straker. Tanner asks Henry, "Where did you go to school?", and Henry says, "Holborn polytechnic." Tanner turns to his companion and says, "Would you ever have spoken that way of Balliol college? Holborn polytechnic means something." We have to put over that point strongly, as John Park has just impressively done, to back up the much welcomed measures that the minister has outlined.

I speak with the brooding figure of Adam Smith and the mass of Adam Smith College behind me in my part of Fife. I realise that Adam Smith College is the key to developing huge wind power arrays in the Forth estuary, which could generate up to 4.7GW of power. Securing that supply depends on our sending out the Henry Strakers who will get the machinery working that will deliver the power. We have done that before; we did it in relation to North Sea oil. Alas, many of the people who were involved in that sector have been outsourced and placed offshore throughout the world. One thing that we have to do in the immediate future is bring those people back to be mentors to the young workers who are moving into renewable energy, where fantastic fundamental research is going on. When the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee went up to see what was happening in the area around Stromness and Scrabster, next to that enormous and ferocious natural force the Pentland Firth, we found amazing research going on. We require people who will transform that research into prototype production.

That was well summed up by an old Glasgow friend of mine, who said that what we had on the Clyde were wee men in overalls with a file in one pocket and a micrometer in the other who, if we put them next to a lump of metal for long enough, would build an engine. We require that combination of skill, determination and the best technical knowledge that we have. Unfortunately, the deindustrialisation of our society has led that to break down. I was talking to a friend of mine who was a lecturer at Motherwell College in the 1970s. Then, there were 170 mechanical engineering lecturers, but because of the end of steel production at Ravenscraig that number has shrunk by practically 90 per cent today.

Remember this: when it comes to training apprentices, even in a sophisticated system such as the one in Denmark, which members of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee saw, or the one in Germany, which I experienced in Baden-Württemberg - I am acquainted with people in the social democrat movement there - 75 per cent of the instruction is carried out in firms' workshops and special training academies. In Germany, notionally, 50 per cent of the instruction should happen in a technical school and 50 per cent should happen at work, but in fact 25 per cent is done in technical schools and 75 per cent is done in the technical academies of, say, Daimler, Voith and Siemens.

We require to give people a much greater degree of such experience. That will be tricky initially, because we are building up the institutions that will do that, which will take time. How do we do that? I refer to my past as an apprentice in multimedia technology at the Open University, which, of course, was founded by Fife's own Jennie Lee in 1969. How do we supply the hands-on approach, not just to instruct people in new technologies but to enthuse them? We can develop technologies such as high definition television and virtual laboratories in collaboration with advanced technical economies in Europe.

We have to make good the decline in the practical experience, which we were once able to supply in the shipyards on Clydeside, and introduce mentoring by bringing people in from their offshore roles to help young people to understand processes in a hands-on way. We have to make use of the people who come to Scotland as migrants from Europe, who are often very well qualified indeed and capable of communicating their knowledge. We should also use new, sophisticated forms of technical communication.

We also need enthusiasm. On 4 February, I will lead a members' business debate on a friend of mine who died two months ago, John Burnie, who, in his professional role, was a shift manager at Longannet - in other words, he was the man who could have plunged us into total darkness in central Scotland if he had not been up to the job. Otherwise, he built up the Bo'ness railway museum, the contents of which are now worth more than £2 million. He always wanted the museum to be used to give practical, hands-on education to a new generation of people, who would have to be specialised in that area of high-quality, heavy engineering, which we thought we had left in the past but which we have to relearn fast. I think that we have the components to hand. In the debate, we have seen a remarkable degree of consensus emerge. As Tom Johnston is celebrated as saying, "What men are prepared to do together, or what men and women are prepared to do together, they can do."

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