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Remaking Industry (May 2008)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Britain's problem is that the fostering of technical skills has been abandoned in favour of market forces


In the 1960s my brother Steve started his apprenticeship as a cartographer with the grand Edinburgh firm of John Bartholomew. JB himself greeted the boys with the promise that no computer would ever replace pen and ink. He was the last of the dynasty. Bartholomews were sold to the Readers Digest.

Steve now drives for another Edinburgh institution: the grand hauliers Christian Salvesen, in 2007 sold to Norbert Dessentrangle of France. Last month, the city's grandest manufacturer, Scottish and Newcastle Breweries, was swallowed by Carlsberg-Heineken, of Denmark and Holland.

Gordon Brown is not the only iconic Scots unionist showing feet of clay. "We must manufacture or die," he announced in Where There's Greed (1989), but manufacturing went down by a quarter 1997-2003, and along with it the high-value-added services and the imparting of skills which kept them functioning. Britain, and Scotland in particular, won oil from the North Sea oil because the Clyde shipbuilding industry taught its apprentices well. No longer. Yes, there's been an expansion of computers and expert systems, but much innovation still involves metal-bashing, what the Swabians call tüfteln, working on a bright idea until it becomes marketable.

In Germany the introduction in and around Karlsruhe of the supertram, which combines rail and tram technology to revolutionise regional transport, required high technical skill in adapting the machinery: changing transformers, motors, wheel profiles, signalling. This sort of adaptation was once something the UK did well. Think of the North Sea triumph in positioning oil rigs by combinations of batteries of computers, satellites and thruster motors. This enabled them to remain stationary at sea even in the roughest of conditions.

But in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s attempts to foster technical skills - later regarded as the ‘delusion’ of picking winners - were abandoned in favour of market forces. The process was driven by ‘shareholder-value’ rationalisation and outsourced/outhoused production - and by a house-construction boom dependent on resource scarcity, not quality of product. A French engineer commented, at the time the Channel Tunnel was finished in 1993, that the French demanded more of their workforce (notably, working in more difficult situations) because it was highly trained. In Britain the training level was lower, the intervention of health and safety more obtrusive. Now that the housing/finance/retail boom is over, where do we go?

Education and pragmatic adaptation once gained the UK plus points against the Germans: a perceptive committee-man like Walter Perry of the Open University could direct administration into functional 12-groups, orient it to specific projects and steer supervisory bodies so that they divided their time up rationally. He could also appreciate the collegiality which could bring thorny characters on board, and let them practise their expertise, creating forward drive and enthusiasm.

Lessons for any manufacturing concern. But the men who transform innovation into metal, who finished their apprenticeships at John Brown's in 1969 (when the OU was set up) will now be retiring.

There was once a surplus of UK-trained manpower, there is now a deficit. A survey of Scottish engineering trainees showed an annual output of 1,780 (or 62% of entrants); in Baden-Württemberg the equivalent output was nearly 21,000 (91% of entrants). Scotland's population is half that of Baden-Württemberg, but engineers in training come to scarcely a tenth. Evaluating their talents and resilience is helped little by the college reports of HM Educational Inspectorate which are sketchy on numbers, quality of students, placements and outcomes.

A recovery of the ingenuity of the 1970s is necessary to meet the new challenge of renewable energy, to cope with extraordinary weather conditions and an evolving technology. For this, the only instruments which can guarantee a return on public investment in training and research must involve state participation. The Norwegian model of Statoil, set up in 1971, has taken Norway's GDP per capita from a level similar to that of the UK to double that level. The ‘British model’ has produced the elusive billionaire who owns Scotland's only refinery.

We are beginning the reindustrialisation of Scottish society through experimental development and prototype manufacture. The prospect of a return big enough to offset the costs to the nation of the project itself - its infrastructure and training - and to provide funds for continuous social betterment and international responsibility will require partnerships with Norway and Germany, which have expertise and investment.

Where, in this scenario, are the matadors of the City of London, committed 80% to financial jugglery, regarding industry as a quaint irrelevance? Ask Boris, and remind him that his party is on 12% in Scotland, and falling.

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