Chips and wafers are not what they used to be. But these building blocks of the computer industry have the potential to revolutionise further education and training, provided colleges and others are geared up to respond.
That was the message from one of the leading computer industry chiefs addressing The TES Scotland's annual Perth conference, held in association with Perth College.
George Bennett, the corporate vice-president and general manager of Motorola, which has established links with West Lothian and Motherwell colleges, warned "We have a Motorola University in Chicago, so if you don't watch, you'll be out of business."
Tom McGrenary, principal of Cumbernauld College, which has established a partnership with Mitsubishi, said: "When you deal with companies like Motorola and Mitsubishi, you really have to move up a gear, and I'm not sure that people within the colleges appreciate the revolution that's taking place."
Dr Bennett, a member of the Government's Advisory Scottish Council on Education and Training Targets, said Motorola had to turn away a lot of graduates because they lacked the skills it was looking for.
His remark prompted Tom Burness, the principal of Glenrothes College, to observe: "We regard ourselves as being very proactive, but we have the greatest difficulty in getting a clear answer to the very question of what it is companies actually want from us. So we need more help from them."
Mr Burness said he was astonished to learn at a public meeting, called to hear from Korean giants Hyundai of the plans for their Pounds 1.4 billion semi-conductor plant in Dunfermline, that the company's training requirements were "in the medium term".
Dr Bennett said educationists had still to be more aware of how dramatically his industry's skills base was changing and he looked to the training system to supplement the "knowledge-based educational system with a skill element".
He added: "What we are missing from education are people with presentation skills, man management skills, craft skills, interpersonal skills, design skills and language skills."
Scotland's semi-conductor industry already employs more than 8,000 people and manufactures 50 per cent of the UK capacity. The worldwide semiconductor market, worth under $200 billion (Pounds 125bn) now, is set to grow to $850bn by 2005, and electronics is well on its way to becoming the world's largest industry overtaking cars, steel, and pharmaceuticals.
Dr Bennett said the implications for the education "industry" were immense: if Scotland was to maintain its market share in semi-conductors, the growth achieved over the past 25 years would have to be doubled in the next five years. Skills training would be a key factor in unlocking that potential.
Of the speed of change in the industry, Dr Bennett added: "If automobile efficiency and cost had improved at the same rate as the evolution of the microchip, a Rolls Royce would cost $3 and do three million miles to the gallon."
He called for a wide-ranging programme to raise awareness of these developments in schools and colleges, aimed particularly at careers teachers.
"It should be mandatory for teachers to go into industry before they start teaching or else rotate into industry, because we find that they don't really know what we as an industry require."
Dr Bennett outlined a programme for improving throughput in the "national skills pipeline", featuring apprenticeships, sponsored undergraduates, placement undergraduates, vacational undergraduates, retraining unemployed engineers in mechatronics, and sponsored educational assistance for employees.
Dr Bennett added: "Engineering has to be renewed as a career, particularly in the west of Scotland where it has a terrible reputation because it is associated with redundancies and heavy industries, and women won't go near it."
Ron Tuck, chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, stressed that the foundations were being laid in the schools. The three sciences were the most popular among school pupils exceeded only by English and maths, he said, yet this was not reflected in the take-up of engineering at the post-school and degree stages.