Your life in the North

Tyneside is the land of opportunity for engineers, says Stephen Pritchard
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The Independent Online
If anywhere in the UK is associated with "smokestack" heavy industry - and its decline - it is the North-east. The region bordered by the rivers Tyne and Tees was once famous for its ships and its steel. More recently, though, it has become known for depression and unemployment.

During the past few years it has seen an industrial revival as great as any other region of the UK. The principal growth areas are now light manufacturing and electronics. Firms investing in the region include household names: Samsung, Fujitsu, Caterpillar and, most recently, Siemens. Nissan, which many regard as having started the trend, has been making cars in Sunderland for more than 10 years.

This concentration of companies means the region can now offer excellent opportunities for graduates, especially in engineering. Historically, the North-east has suffered from a very low level of graduate retention; students who studied in the area went elsewhere to seek work. Now, the reverse is happening.

Huge investments from Fujitsu and, most recently, Siemens, are the best known. Smaller firms are also moving into the region; the Northern Development Company, which promotes the area to inward investors, lists some 400 companies that have chosen the North-east. Many need graduate engineers. "There are considerable opportunities in electronic engineering, and there are still openings in the automotive and process industries," says John Bridge, the chief executive of NDC.

Nissan, for example, hires three or four engineering graduates each year at its Sunderland plant. There is stiff competition for the vacancies. The company recruits a combination of local applicants and graduates from outside the region.

"We do tend to attract quite a lot of applications," points out Sean Hodgson, controller, personnel. "Like other car companies, we are seen as engineering-led." Mr Hodgson reports few problems in persuading good recruits to move to Sunderland.

Newer investors are adding to the region's pool of graduate-level jobs. Samsung, for example, is gearing up its recruitment now that its Stockton- on-Tees factory is fully operational.

One of the first stages is to build a relationship with universities in the area, says Ken Donald, director of human resources. The company is already working with the universities of Durham and Newcastle. "We see a future for graduates here," says Mr Donald. "We are looking at expanding our engineering division, and putting in skills such as research and development."

The firm, which makes televisions, computer monitors and microwave ovens at the plant, is developing a graduate training programme. The first recruits will start this autumn.

Samsung will be looking for graduates in all areas of engineering, but in particular electronics and mechanical engineers. The approach, which Mr Donald describes as the "Korean attitude", is very much hands-on. "We are looking for self-starters who are able to work on their own initiative," he says.

At Nissan, Sean Hodgson is also looking for more than just an engineer. The firm is less concerned about degree results than personality, although engineering knowledge is tested.

This is part of the company's flat management structure. At Nissan, there is no distinction between line workers and white-collar staff: indeed, graduate engineers work closely with the production department and can expect to spend a good deal of time on the shop floor.

"We need people who can fit in to the team way of working," says Mr Hodgson. "They will not be working alone as specialists. Engineers interface daily with the production department, so we are looking for practical, down- to-earth people."

The move away from the old-fashioned, hierarchical methods of management is just one change overseas investors have brought to the North-east. Traditionally, heavy industry was quite insular. Often, this was a necessity. Firms such as Vickers or Swan Hunter spent much of their time on weapons contracts, with the Ministry of Defence as the main client. Other employers were nationalised, and opportunities reflected this. "Choosing to go into a career in the late Seventies with the National Coal Board might not have been a good idea," suggests John Bridge of NDC. "Now there are more opportunities."

The new industries are very different. The firms moving to the region are global corporations, and the openings for graduates reflect this: staff at Nissan, for example, have been seconded to Japan or Europe.

The North-east is not only restricted to first jobs. Improved communications mean companies have no need to maintain head offices in London. Nissan was regarded as revolutionary when it built its headquarters at its plant in the Eighties; now this is common practice. But perhaps the most important factor is the concentration of hi-tech firms now in the region. "Graduates do not want to go to where there is just one employer," says John Bridge. The critical mass of engineering firms in the region make it more comfortable building a career there.

Once more, the North-east is becoming a serious player in the graduate jobs market: it is a case of jobs, not just fog, on the Tyne.