1st April 2005 at 01:00
For Solihull, read Beijing

After the skills white paper, we can look forward to yet another revolution in the re-skilling of our workforce as we fight off our foreign competitors. The biggest of these is apparently the emerging Chinese economy, which, we are told, is going to take over the world, if global warming doesn't get us first.

That country's industrial expansion is being felt around the West Midlands, the traditional home of the British car-manufacturing industry, where the Chinese are getting into bed with MG Rover.

Of course, MG Rover knows a thing or two about increasing British productivity through workforce training. Its chairman since the firm was bought out from previous owner BMW is John Towers, who was until recently chairman of the West Midlands Learning and Skills Council.

So what is MG Rover's big idea for becoming a more successful company? Investing in British workers to make them more productive, presumably.

Well, up to a point. Actually, the firm is working with China's much larger state-owned Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation to build some of its smaller runabouts in a purpose-built factory - once the peasants have been moved out of the way, that is.

Like John Towers, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, also believes in the importance of skilling-up British workers but, like Mr Towers, he also has to live in the real world.

Speaking in China about MG Rover's plans, Mr Brown recently said: "Both the Chinese and the British governments will do what they can. In Britain's case, we are very supportive of this partnership."

So there you have government policy for improving our international competitiveness.

Provide better training for British workers to improve productivity or, if this fails, shift the problem overseas, where labour is cheaper and facilities can be built without the obstacles of British property prices, and authoritarian regimes can site factories where they like.

The Chinese must be quaking in their boots.

But, to be fair, the Chinese operation might just keep MG Rover afloat, and that would protect the jobs of the 6,000 workers still designing and building cars in the West Midlands.

These jobs, Mr Towers says, would be safe - for the time being, at least.

And come to think of it, perhaps British further education could lend its expertise to help train the Chinese workforce to build all the stuff which we already know how to make.

I can see it now. Let's face it, the local Birmingham Solihull college is a worthy institution but somehow Birmingham Beijing Centre of Motor Manufacturing Excellence sounds more exotic.

Email us FErret@tes.co.uk

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