Rolls-Royce’s decision to transfer part of its research and development operation to Canada has touched some raw nerves.
We all know how rare it is for engineers to go on strike, yet this move has prompted a 4:1 vote in favour of industrial action by engineers at its Ansty plant in Coventry.
At the heart of all this is a nagging uncertainty among its professional staff over the long-term commitment of Rolls-Royce to continue R&D in Britain. Such fears could be imaginary, or they could turn out to be justified. The point is, the engineering staff, and their families, don’t know what to believe.
For its part, Rolls-Royce says Montreal is the obvious choice for its energy business development because that is where the market is, in the same way that its marine division is based in Scandinavia.
However, significantly perhaps, it has not gone on record yet with a commitment to keep its aerospace R&D in Britain. This may just be a bid to add extra pressure on the Chancellor to deliver R&D tax credits at his next Budget. Or it may imply that the whole question of R&D in the UK is up for discussion.
What engineers at Rolls-Royce want urgently is honest, open information about their future. People join Rolls-Royce because it is a world-class engineering company which promises an excellent career. It has a reputation to uphold, and relies on morale and motivation as much as it does on strategy and investment.
It also has a crucial role to play in the long- term development of the UK as a serious player in global technology.
It is commonplace today to talk of our future in higher value-added activities, such as design and R&D, rather that ‘traditional’ manufacturing.
But if rival western economies can provide British firms with a better place to carry out R&D, in the same way that developing countries provide a cheaper place to manufacture, then we will have a serious problem on our hands.