If you ask me

This week we look at what can be done to boost UK manufacturing and graduate interest in the IT sector.

Manufacturing matters

With the UK now in deep recession, after a near 20-year period of uninterrupted growth, two crucial events stand out for scrutiny, namely the bulldozing of the Siemens chip plant in North Tyneside and the shameful discrediting of the financial
services industry.

In the mid-1990s, the UK was poised to dethrone Germany as Europe's largest chip manufacturer, only to fall victim to the 1998 chip market downturn that caused an unprecedented 10 per cent of the world's wafer fab capacity to be shuttered. Other closures included plants owned by Fujitsu, NEC, Goldstar and Hyundai. These closures added fuel to the argument that UK-based manufacturing industries, especially high-tech ones, are doomed to oblivion.

In parallel, ARM, a fledgling chip-design company in Cambridge, was laying the foundations to become the world's leading provider of IC design IP, building a business without ever needing to manufacture a single commercial chip. ARM delivered the goods and built a world-class business.

The UK thrived in this design-centric environment, spinning out several hundred IC design firms, mostly formed by redundant or frustrated engineers previously part of larger UK-based electronics groups bent on downsizing.

These events helped fan the flames of conventional wisdom that ultimately drew the conclusion that the UK and Europe's high-tech future lay in design and R&D services rather than manufacturing end products. After all, design and R&D services required intellectual skills, something the UK was good at; manufacturing, on the other hand, was all about being cost competitive.

With the simultaneous, but unrelated, rise in importance of the financial services sector and its ever-growing, recession-resistant contribution to UK GDP, service-based industries became the byword for UK wealth creation. It seemed the perfect solution, had significant intellectual appeal and became a cause celebre. Services were in fashion; manufacturing was out.

Then the wheels fell off. IC IP services were successful, but their GDP wealth contribution is low, limited by the fact it occurs so far down the value creation chain. Financial services were different; their contribution was huge... until this was revealed as nothing more than the Emperor's new clothes.

Perhaps now is the time to reawaken interest in manufacturing? Europe has proved it has world-beating R&D, both via research consortia like MEDEA, CARENE and ENIAC and institutions like IMEC and Fraunhofer. It is a relatively small step to put a 'plastic box and shrink-wrapped package' around this IP and sell it on the street.

At Future Horizons, we have always believed that the assertion that says a high-cost base economy cannot support a world-class manufacturing industry is fundamentally flawed. Hopefully the time is ripe for this issue to be reopened. What governments in the UK ought to be doing is asking: "What needs to be done to provide the right fertile conditions?"

This guidance and direction, however, must come from industrialists; it is government's role to listen. Perhaps now is the time for organisations like the IET to mobilise industry consensus and start driving this point home at the UK and EU-level.

Malcolm Penn is chairman and CEO of semiconductor analyst firm Future Horizons

Conference call is first IT career step

At a time of diminishing employment, the fact that few computer science graduates seem keen to enter a profession where job opportunities are thriving puzzles many in the IT sector. A qualification in computer science opens up a range of career options, from working in enterprise IT or the IT industry, to cutting-edge academic research.

A report commissioned by the Council of Professors and Heads of Computing confirms that, as the number of higher education students and graduations for all subjects is at an all-time high, computing student numbers and graduations are falling.

Some claim that IT suffers from an image problem, perceived by young technologists to be unexciting and dull - despite evidence to the contrary. E&T regularly profiles IT professionals in its 'My Way' slot (see pg 56) that give testimony to the fact that they are involved in demanding projects that thrust them into the eye of the zeitgeist. Getting this across to undergraduate technologists, however, is no easy sell.

Conferences and seminars are essential for IT practitioners to keep up to date on the key issues and developments in their profession, and attending like events is a form of work experience often overlooked by those striving to inform a keener sense of career mindedness among students; so the advent of the first Computer Science conference last December represents a landmark in bringing computer science students together for an event specially designed to meet their information requirements.

Organised by the UK Computing Research Committee, and sponsored by industry associations like the IET, and IT sector players like BT, Google, and Microsoft, Computer Science 2008 comprised three days of presentations and workshops from a broad cross-section of speakers, all pitched to enlarge delegates' career horizons, with specific reference to opportunities in academic research.

It presented delegates - 153 computer science students from around the world - with comprehensive insights into the breadth of the IT sector, and networking sessions gave them opportunities to meet experts and pick their brains. Direct contact with sponsoring professional bodies added additional value: the IET recruited 100 student members from 50 computer science departments across the UK.

The breadth of topics addressed meant that students could gain a very broad purview of the career disciplines computer science made them eligible for: from Web product design to working to improve access to technology for communities in the developing world. A series of sessions concentrated on the increasingly convergent nature of computing, and focuses included engineering, biosciences, medicine, and nanosystems.

Post-event feedback underlined the event's success, and evidenced strong interest in interdisciplinary interfaces between computing and other scientific disciplines.

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