Improved skills vital for Silicon Glen staff

After another manufacturing plant closure in the electronics sector, the Electronics
Industry Action Plan is vital for survival. 
Colin Wright examines

The closure of NEC’s manufacturing plant at Livingston in Scotland’s
‘Silicon Glen’ is the latest blow for the ailing electronics industry.

The plant closure earlier this month follows that of Motorola, Compaq and
Hyundai, and the area has lost 10,300 jobs since 1999. Nearly 6,000 jobs have
been cut over the past year.

The cuts prompted former Scottish Enterprise Minister Wendy Alexander to launch
an Electronics Industry Action Plan (EIAP) to identify and tackle the problems
the sector is facing.

The investigation found that Scotland’s electronics industry is
characterised by large-scale assembly and manufacturing operations, but these
are ‘highly vulnerable’ to competition from other countries in Eastern Europe
and the Asia Pacific region. Labour rates are significantly lower in these

NEC’s experience supports the findings. HR director Maidie Cahill said:
"The decision to close the plant at Livingston had nothing to do with the
skills of the staff or the productivity levels, but with what is happening in
the world markets and, in particular, Japan. This was much more a global
decision than anything to do with the way the operation was run.

"An indication of the quality of the workforce can be seen by the
rapidity of its placement in other posts. Since we made the announcement more
than 80 per cent of all staff have been resettled, which says a lot about how
highly regarded they are."

The total number employed directly in the Scottish electronics industry has
fallen to 35,000 with a further 30,000 estimated to be employed indirectly. The
plan aims to protect these remaining jobs. "The skills issue is the single
most important element in the industry’s transition," states the EIAP.

It concludes: "There will be a shift in the balance of skills required,
with a reduction in low skill, low value jobs and an increase in the proportion
of high skill, high value jobs."

As part of the practical help being offered to firms, the Executive has
agreed to help with staff retraining and management development. Skills
retraining is being offered to employees on debugging, servicing and repair,
supply chain management, product design, software programming and customer

Managers are being offered development in areas such as e-commerce and
enterprise resource planning.

Silicon Glen employers support the drive. Neil Fraser, HR manager with
National Semiconductors, said: "We are constantly reviewing our policies
and we are conscious that we can’t compete on costs so we compete on skills and
quality of work. In some of the local organisations we visit most of the staff
are effectively just assembly workers – we want more for our staff than that."

"Some of the work previously done by maintenance engineers, for
example, is now being done by manufacturing technicians. No-one talks of
demarcation here," he said.

National Semiconductors announced in early June that it is to invest £20m in
its chip-making and design facility in Greenock, which employs 600 people.

Training and development manager Grace Mitchell explained that two years ago
the company retrained 958 people when a manufacturing line was closed.

"We upskilled all the staff using a step-by-step approach instead of
the former ‘buddy’ system. This involved staff learning tasks until they could
do them without hesitation or error. The average training time using the buddy
system was 168 hours whereas using the new system this was reduced by 48 per
cent, with less wastage."

New approaches to skills development and training will be needed for Silicon
Glen to survive. The EIAP concludes: "IT is becoming increasingly
pervasive on manufacturing systems and daily working life. This requires
operators, ancillary staff, and management to constantly upgrade skills and
position the industry as a leader in technological change."

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