THIS IS REALLY WORRYING. Scotland might be running out of engineers. The country has a fine tradition of scientists and engineers from people such as James Watt, Alexander Graham-Bell, James Clerk Maxwell and Lord Kelvin. Scots have always been prominent amongst the pioneers of technology development — even the engineer on the Starship Enterprise was supposed to be a Scot, despite the odd accent.
When I was building my business in the US in the 1980s, I was helped considerably by the then Scottish Development Agency’s promotion of ‘Silicon Glen’ as a hotbed of technology development. But that was 20 years ago. Silicon Glen has since shrunk considerably in influence with the closure of major plants by companies such as Digital, Motorola, H-P, NEC and Lexmark.
Wolfson Microelectronics, Scotland’s leading indigenous electronics design company, drove another nail into the Silicon Glen coffin. It recently declared that for some time it had found “real difficulty in recruiting and just cannot find what we need here”.
It is now spreading its trawl and looking for good graduates from south of the border.
We have got used to the fact that manufacturing no longer happens in ‘rich’ western economies such as Scotland — Wolfson manufactures its advanced chips in Taiwan and China — but up until now we have blithely assumed that we would be able to retain the design skilis here, the real ‘value-added’ element of a company such as Wolfson. This casts doubt on these assumptions.
But looking to England for recruits might not be the answer for Wolfson. The CBI has recently complained about the “dire” quality of many of today’s British school leavers who are turning their back on studying science at school, preferring to tackle “easier” subjects. Over the last 30 years, the proportion of students studying physics has halved.
CBI director, Richard Lambert, says: “The UK risks being knocked off its perch as a world leader in science, engineering and technology.”
Scottish universities continue to do their bit: they have had none of the embarrassing closures of big science departments and the technology research base has remained very strong. However, they are finding it more and more difficult to recruit the students to fill the places available.
Take the Institute for System Level Design (ISLI), a top-notch postgraduate centre in Livingston run jointly by Edinburgh, Heriot Watt, Glasgow and Strathclyde universities. There is a relatively small proportion of students from Scotland, but its courses are popular with students from Taiwan who learn how to design advanced electronic devices, then go home to practice their craft.
The emerging economies are not just relying on sending the students overseas to study engineering and science. Both China and India are rapidly developing their capacity to educate them at home. China is now educating 600,000 science students — 200,000 more than the USA — and India is currently educating over 400,000.
Visiting China recently I observed how the brightest students strive to study science and to become engineers. China is developing at an extraordinary rate and, along with India, is determined to win more of the research and development functions.
Unless this trend is reversed, we are looking at a long-term decline in the Scottish and UK economy When we stop relying on our brains, we’ll be in real trouble.