The work underway to boost skills is taking a step by step approach.

Skills has been a long standing issue within the UK electronics industry. Going back a few years, it was all about being able to make the most of board level design products. Today, it's more about getting the most out of fpga/pcb codesign. But there are a range of issues involved in the skills argument; some under the control of UK electronics businesses, some not. Indro Mukerjee, ceo of C-MAC Microtechnology, holds the skills brief on the Electronics Leadership Council, while chairing the electronics strategy group at SEMTA, the sector skills council. "When I started in the electronics industry, the UK had brand names and a world presence through big companies. But it has all changed in 25 years through globalisation and offshoring of manufacturing and design. The UK industry today is fragmented." Mukerjee sees no sign of this trend abating. "If we wait another 25 years and do nothing, there will be nothing left. That prospect is what drove me to get involved in the skills area." Mukerjee offers his experience as ceo of C-MAC as evidence. "As ceo of a UK company, I see this issue in the flesh and I get quite jumpy. I started talking to others and I found out that I could spend a lot of time talking to well meaning people. That told me nobody cares; the problem is that people are as fragmented as the industry and we have to blame the leaders." Part of the problem, at least in Mukerjee's opinion, is that, until recently, 'it's been the wrong groups and the wrong alliances'. "I got involved with the ELC and SEMTA because I wanted to make a stronger connection between the groups working to address the problem and the industry. My view was 'let's get stuck in'." Mukerjee is a realist, certainly a pragmatist. "We won't change things overnight, but we can change things bit by bit." And that is the crux of Mukerjee's agenda. "Skills is a series of microscopic issues and that means we can't solve 'the problem'. What I can do – and so can others – is to solve some of the microscopic challenges. We have to change the debate from 'macro' to 'micro'." He gives the example of the SEMTA sector compact. "This brings the ability to broker training at certain levels. Let's try to get our fair share –and a bit more – of the money that's available, then move to the next problem. What we have to remember is that we can't boil the ocean." So what does he think these micro actions are? "Linking SEMTA with trade associations, highlighting conferences, developing mailers and so on. Practical actions, doing the work, making the commitment." He says the approach is already showing the benefits. "We now have about 700 companies training employees and we're helping these companies through a complex environment which most do not understand." He's also keen to make sure that, having 'started the ball rolling', things don't slacken off. "We want to keep things sharp by reviewing what SEMTA does from an operational point of view." And it becomes obvious that Mukerjee has been less than impressed with the way things have been done in the past. "We've turned what was a quarterly review into a board meeting – what happened, what's the feedback, what have we learned? In the past, people have been well meaning, but the programmes haven't been developed by business focused people." One of the problems which Mukerjee readily admits is the level at which SEMTA operates. "We currently address Level 3, which is equivalent to advanced technicians, and operate in conjunction with the National Microelectronics Institute (NMI) and the UK Electronics Alliance (UKEA). We are working on ways in which to work beyond this level, but we still need to get some exciting stuff done." Why is Mukerjee so passionate about skills issues? "I feel personally about this because it's the sector that gave me my career. We need to energise the process to get people working together." And it's here that Mukerjee begins to look at the 'bigger picture'. "It's possible that this is the last generation of UK people who will run the larger electronics companies. What I'm concerned about is whether there will be opportunities, whether there will be the career path that people like me had." But it's not just engineering skills that need to be developed, Mukerjee contends. Non engineering skills are just as important. "A lot of companies are not adequately focused," he continues. "A lot of business leaders are not sufficiently skilled. Globalisation means companies must sharpen their focus and not get involved in areas where they will lose out; manufacturing is an example." What he underlines is that companies must assume responsibility and, reading between the lines, not rely on others to bail them out. "Companies must perform, otherwise they can't invest in people," he says, "and they won't sustain the future. Nevertheless, we must protect and nurture our industry." He sees the UK as being able to capitalise on two 'golden skills'. "There's the IP/fabless area, for one. But there's also added value manufacturing, although I'm not on a mission to reestablish manufacturing in the UK." Added value manufacturing employs a lot of people and there is an increasing electronics content. "This has created an ecosystem," Mukerjee contended. "What I've been trying to do is to help to make links between relevant parties. Companies such as Philips, IBM and Sony all have the ability to take people from the start to the finish of their career – and they do it well," he noted. "Small companies can't do this, so they need some kind of ability to access talent." And it's here where Mukerjee becomes excited. "We have a number of stakeholders working on creating an academy on behalf of the industry, covering apprenticeships, pre university and foundation aspects." What he envisages is a system in which a pool of expertise is available and these skills can be matched to the needs of particular companies. If people with skills are in the system, we want to keep them within the system." This is very much 'work in progress' and developments are expected later this year. Despite his bullish approach, Mukerjee is keen not to reinvent the wheel. "If there are things going on, let's link to them; we mustn't duplicate effort." It's obvious the skills issue consumes Mukerjee. "If we do nothing," he concluded, "it will be our legacy." The SEMTA business to skills workshop turns the skills proposition on its head, says Darren Race, sector skills agreement implementation manager. "We look to determine a company's business objectives. If the training that's being done doesn't support those objectives, it's being done for the sake of it. Doing the right training is good for the bottom line." He says that, before anyone is sent for training, companies must have an idea of what the return might be. "We're looking to change the training culture." There's some £65million available for training in the electronics sector, provided through the Government's Train to Gain programme. "The money available also supports Leadership Management Grants. These allow companies to identify key workers, who can then access a range of funding to support such things as MSc modules or ISO9000 programmes. But the money has to be spent on something that makes an impact in that business."