Network: Goodbye metal bashers, hello Mr Chips: Former steel and coal workers are now part of a second industrial revolution in Scotland, writes John Arlidge

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
FOR THREE years Steven Braidie made heavy-duty steel tubes at British Steel's Clydesdale factory in Bellshill, near Glasgow. Five days a week for 48 weeks a year he arrived at 7am, brewed tea by the foundry, put on dirty blue overalls to protect him from molten metal, and made his way to the dusty factory floor.

Today, three years after being laid off when the Clydesdale works closed, Mr Braidie, 29, works at the NEC semiconductor factory in Livingston. He greets his colleagues in Japanese when he arrives. He breakfasts on tempura and rice, and changes into a dust- free nylon suit before starting work in the 'wafer fab' unit, where he helps to make silicon chips.

Mr Braidie is one of hundreds of Lanarkshire men who began their working lives bashing metal, working in steel mills or coal mining, but are now adapting to conditions in the hi-tech electronics industries of 'silicon glen' between Glasgow and Edinburgh. The former steelmen have helped to make NEC's Livingston plant the most efficient semiconductor operation in the Japanese company's global network. Last month, their productivity record - an 80 per cent increase since 1990 - helped to persuade NEC's Tokyo head office to locate a new pounds 530m semiconductor plant in Scotland.

The creation of more than 400 jobs on a greenfield site acquired by NEC beside the M8 motorway follows the decision by Digital, a US computer giant, to open a factory at Irvine, Ayrshire, and a new pounds 250m investment by Motorola, one of the world's leading chip makers, in its manufacturing plant in East Kilbride, near Glasgow.

As the European market for mobile telephones, computers and electronic household goods has expanded, semiconductor production north of the border has grown rapidly, drawing in many men who were forced on to the dole queues in the 1980s when Scotland's traditional heavy industries virtually disappeared. Today 45,000 Scots work in electronics companies; they produce 35 per cent of Europe's personal computers and 21 per cent of the Continent's integrated circuits.

Workers who have swapped strip steel for silicon chips say the changes in their working lives are remarkable. At NEC there are no unions, no collective bargaining and no strikes. Women make up half the workforce, whose average age is just 22. Workers are organised into small 'zero defect' groups which conduct weekly brainstorming sessions in an effort to 'harmonise energies' and improve efficiency. Contrary to the practice followed by most Japanese firms at home, NEC assesses all employees individually - with financial rewards for improved performance.

Some NEC workers say the new language and style of work has disrupted the traditional union- based camaraderie that characterised the workforce at the steel plants. But most welcome the Japanese approach.

Gordon Irving, 35, an engineer at the Ravenscraig steel works for 13 years before being laid off when the plant closed in 1992, said: 'Here at NEC you stand or fall on your own merits. At the Craig there was a closed shop. You had to be a union member to work and union leaders negotiated agreements on behalf of thousands of men. That meant you could find yourself working hard next to some other guy who was lazing around scratching his backside, but earning the same as you. That cannot happen here; it means there's a greater incentive to work and to improve efficiency.'

Ian Black, 37, who worked at the British Steel Imperial Tube Works in Airdrie before moving to NEC, added: 'The feeling of collective solidarity has weakened because in the steel works and the mines you had generations of the same family working together. Sons followed fathers who had followed grandfathers. But the days of those sorts of industries and the working practices that went with them were numbered, and are now over.

'By the time I came here four years ago, the unions had done their job. Management acknowledged that workers had rights, and new companies like NEC which came to Scotland adopted an enlightened approach to employee relations. 'The result is that people are content here. There has not been a single mention of strikes since I joined four years ago. It's just not an issue, and I cannot see it becoming one.'

One thousand workers at the NEC plant produce 3.5 million memory chips each month for use in Britain and export to manufacturers in Asia, Germany, France and Italy. If their output is measured by weight, many workers produce less in a month than they used to manufacture in a day in the old iron and steel works; measured by value, or by job satisfaction, it is probably the other way around. After a few years at the plant many employees say that they would rather work for a Japanese company than a British one.

Mr Irving said: 'I used to haul around 30-ton steel moulds, and here I am working now on machines that produce material which is 0.8mm thick and 15mm by 5mm. Each chip fits on to the end of your finger.

'It sounds weedy in comparison, but it's much more rewarding. By the time I got to the end of a shift at Ravenscraig I was bored. I knew the job too well. It was the same thing every day with the same sort of machines. Here we get new equipment in all the time, and there are always new challenges.

'At the same time, we are producing for an expanding hi-tech market. We are leaders in technology, not working for a dying industry.'

Most of the men are not surprised to discover that their plant's productivity is higher than that of semiconductor factories in Japan and America. Mr Braidie explained: 'Scots have always had a good reputation for being efficient workers. In the good days of the steel industry we produced some of the best steel in the world.

'All we have done now is transfer those skills - which date from the industrial revolution - into a new environment with a more contented workforce. As far as most of us are concerned, this is the future of industry and of work.'

(Photograph omitted)