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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
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

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all