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Scottish Parliament Speech: Skills Strategy (May 2008)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

In the late 1990s, the Scott Lithgow shipyard at Port Glasgow was demolished and four call centres were built on its site. That was part of some new deal. To some, we were entering the knowledge economy, but that was the yard whose skilled shipwrights, engineers and boiler workers had, a decade earlier, built the Ocean Alliance drill ship - a contract that ruined the yard but produced perhaps the most sophisticated vessel of its type, which was crucial in detecting oil in the deepest of waters.

Something akin to the North Sea oil revolution is ahead of us - the renewables revolution - but we must get back to that period in terms of skills and training. That is difficult when, over the past decade, the manufacturing proportion of gross domestic product has gone down by a quarter. What will it take to get renewables up and running? Last week, we were told that renewables would create 50,000 jobs, which sounds great, until we realise that our current output of apprentices in engineering and electrotechnics is less than 2,000 a year. Baden-Württemberg, my previous employer, produces 10 times as many, even allowing for the population difference. A well-known Prime Minister said: "We must manufacture or die" in his book "Where There's Greed: Margaret Thatcher and the Betrayal of Britain's Future" in 1999. It was Gordon Brown. Right on, Gordon, but what happened?


How do we proceed? We require a cultural revolution and we must step up recruitment by making the pitch for the importance of mechanical engineering and the link with new technology, which is crucial to high value and innovation.

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I would put the emphasis much less on wind energy and much more on wave energy. We must tackle the might of the mighty Atlantic. That is how we must orientate ourselves.

We must get back to the age of the master engineer and Thomas Telford's idea of making any major public works project a great working academy, which means a greater degree of practical involvement and an orientation towards professions that are much more valuable than those of the estate agent - which will fairly rapidly be extinct - or lawyer. From some of my public experiences, I regretfully think that engineers make more money from turning up at public inquiries to oppose schemes than they do from advancing technology by experiment and innovation.

Another source of expertise is Europe. Unquestionably, we cannot do without western Europe for high technology, but eastern Europe is much underestimated. Our incoming workers are often well overqualified for the sort of jobs that we set them to do. Members should remember that the Lenin shipyard at Gdansk had 20,000 workers in 1980 and now has 2,000. That is only one example. Perhaps we could arrange for eastern Europe's technical know-how to be given in exchange for our knowledge of the English language, although we must remember that, these days, the shop talk of technology is in German, not English.

We must review our school system to emphasise two points: first, that craft skills are equal, if not superior, to passing academic tests; and secondly, that the menu of such skills should extend across gender competencies. The old Clydeside mentality was not very good at that, so macho Mac must move over. We need a pause for reflection after secondary school - a social year along German lines - and we would also be well advised to follow the Icelandic example of building social work and industrial involvement into the latter years at secondary school. We must do that soon, because our old carbon economy will not last a decade. We do not have time for a resit.

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