UK skills move east

If knowledge is exportable, so are the people with the knowledge.

Andrew Joslin makes some interesting and valid points on the state of UK manufacturing (Brains not brawn – Letters, 3 May).

I agree with much of what he says about how and why the UK’s manufacturing infrastructure has declined, but cannot share his apparently optimistic view that an alternative ‘knowledge economy’ can be built if only the government provides sufficient incentive and support to our brightest engineers and scientists.

That may not be enough, because the best minds inevitably gravitate to the areas where an infrastructure is in place to support their talents, both in terms of material assistance (including laboratories and testing facilities) and their own careers.

As an example, we are often reassured that the skilled end of our automotive industry could survive the shift of mass volume production to the far east by providing design and technical know-how at a distance. We are rather kidding ourselves that we can indefinitely supply the ‘brains’ while the lower paid workers in Asia provide the ‘brawn’ of actually building the vehicles.

In reality the best people will naturally gravitate to where the action is. It makes no sense to have R&D taking place thousands of miles from production if you can simply pick the people you want and bring them to you. Our brightest and best people will indeed continue to prosper, but I have to question whether they will do so here.

As Andrew Joslin said, knowledge is our most exportable asset. But if knowledge is exportable, so are the people with the knowledge. It takes decades to see the physical infrastructure of an industry disintegrate, but a ‘braindrain’ can be the matter of a few years.

Peter Smith