Cold winds howl through Silicon Glen

Clydeside is facing up to the realisation that the hi-tech jobs boom was a false dawn, writes Charles Arthur

FOR YEARS, whenever the makers of computer chips got together they would tell a joke. "How's business?" one would ask. "Wonderful!" the other would reply. "Our output is 10 per cent smaller this year than last year!"

They aren't telling that joke any more. Most of all, they aren't telling it in "Silicon Glen" - the area of Scotland, around Livingston and Greenock, where companies such as National Semiconductor, Motorola and Seagate Technologies built their manufacturing plants.

In the past few weeks, almost 2,500 people at five different companies' factories have been told that their job may soon cease to exist. The chip business really is shrinking, as profits pour away because a global glut of products - made at plants planned in days of shortage - is forcing companies to sell their chips at less than cost price.

"The saying is that there are a dozen companies each chasing a 10 per cent market share," explained Roy Rubenstein of Electronics Weekly magazine. "But the problems aren't only for chip companies: it's disc-drive makers [such as Seagate] and computer makers. It shows that there are global problems."

Yet, observers expect the semiconductor industry to revive itself within 18 months and to begin to climb out of a three-year slump, the longest recession it has ever known. But for the workers facing the sack, the uncompromising message is, unless you are very skilled - perhaps with a degree - there probably won't be a job like it again.

That will be a social disaster for the area, because 95 per cent of the workers at semiconductor plants are women. They are the ones now in the front line for lay-offs. And as Anthony Parish, director general of the UK's Federation of Electronic Industries (FEI), points out, those lay- offs will ripple out into the wider area.

"Each paid job supports two and a half other jobs in the wider community, in every industry, right down to the launderette," said Mr Parish. On that basis, more than 6,000 people will be affected by the closures in the next couple of years. "That's what is lost when we lose a factory: the money people spend in the community."

Decades ago, employment in the area, along the River Clyde, relied on the men working in the shipyards. When those closed, the burgeoning chip industry began recruiting. The National Semiconductor plant, where last week 600 of the 1,040 staff were told their jobs will disappear, was built in 1972. Often, the people being taken on were the wives of younger men who had just lost their shipyard jobs.

Now, the women may face years of unemployment for decisions made by planners when it seemed the industry could not possibly fail. But the UK, and Silicon Glen, were especially liable. "We were over-committed in semiconductor fabrication plants," said Mr Parish. "Three years ago, people were talking about Britain producing enough chips to account for half of the European semiconductor market. That won't be fulfilled. And I don't believe that when growth does return that it will be in semiconductor fabrication."

Though chip-making has a high-tech image - of people wearing all-body suits and working in super-clean rooms - it is also a laborious, repetitive business, requiring great physical precision but little or no creativity. The chips are instead "etched" using chemicals, according to designs created on the other side of the world.

"In a couple of years we will be making more and more boxes - computers and TVs - here," said Mr Parish. "And the important trick that we have to pull is getting into design and research and development. That's where our ambitions must look in terms of skills input: we need graduates with those abilities."

But for the women facing a final pay-cheque, he admitted the news was less hopeful. "I don't know that we're going to get too much of that chip work back," he said. "But we have to be realistic. Jobs that aren't skilled tend to be mobile. The predictions are that by 2010 one in every 10 of the female workforce will be working in a call centre. Maybe that's what they have to look forward to."

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game Of Thrones
Uh-oh, winter is coming. Ouch, my eyes! Ygritte’s a goner. Lysa’s a goner. Tywin’s a goner. Look, a dragon
tvSpoiler warning: The British actor says viewers have 'not seen the last' of his character
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Sport
The Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City
premier leaguePlus all the build-up to Man City vs Chelsea and Everton vs Palace
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Polly Borgen at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2012
peopleThe Emmy award-winner starred in Cape Fear, the Sopranos and Desperate House Wives
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam