Autumn Conferrings 2005
Devere Hall, Áras na Mac Léinn, UCC, 13 MFómh 2005
Professor Peter Kennedy, Vice President for Research, UCC
President, academic colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,
May I begin by offering my heartiest congratulations to our newest graduates.Well done!
I?d like to take the next ten minutes or so to share with you some personal thoughts on working in the Knowledge Economy.When I was in secondary school twenty-five years ago, my favourite subjects were Accounting and Applied Mathematics.I knew I wanted to go to university, but I wasn?t sure what to study. Should I choose a career in Business or in Science?
In the case of Accounting, I had heard that doing a primary degree wouldn?t be enough to make me an accountant.I?d have to sit a huge number of exams for years afterwards.From a Leaving Cert perspective, more years of exams didn?t sound like fun.So I choose Engineering.
I was certain I wanted to do Electrical Engineering.Power stations are power stations.Transmission lines are transmission lines.Solid, stable technology.Get a degree, then a nice job in the ESB, sit back and generate electricity for the rest of my life.No more exams.No more study.Bliss!
The year was 1980 and Ireland was projecting a shortage of Engineers.I signed up as a trainee engineer with Philips Radio Manufacturing Company in Dublin.Guaranteed well-paid employment every summer, no obligation to work with them when I finished.And the factory was a ten-minute walk from home.Heaven!
My experience in Philips had a profound affect on my career.It taught me very dramatically the value of Research and Development in a global economy, and the need for lifelong learning.I was sure when I entered Philips that I wanted to study Electrical Engineering.The Chief Engineer, Sid Slator, was disappointed.Electrical Engineering was about one frequency, 50Hz, he said.But there were so many more frequencies: audio, radio, TV, microwaves....Why limit my horizons?Electronics, he said.That was the future.
But Electronics meant ever-changing technology, and the need to learn new things forever.Constantly learning.More exams.This was very different from the laid-back future I had desired.Why choose this hard road?
It was the early 1980s, and Philips? Dublin plant was under pressure from the Japanese competition to reduce costs.In summer 1983, I was part of a team that built a machine to automate the production of a TV tuner.We had a problem, we researched it, and we developed a novel solution.There was a great buzz in the engineering team; we were using technology to compete in a global market.
Our machine worked.It was so effective that it replaced the low-skill manual work of 20 people.Automation was making people redundant, but it was simultaneously helping to keep 500 other manufacturing jobs in Ireland.
Everything changed in 1986 when Portugal joined to EU.Ireland was suddenly too expensive.Philips closed its manufacturing operation in Ireland, and we lost 500 jobs.Only one piece of equipment was moved from the Dublin to the new factory in Portugal; the automated line that we had developed three years earlier.
I learned two lessons.Low-cost labour replaces high-cost labour.And automation, once it gets a foothold, never retreats.
The most highly skilled employees in Philips moved on to other things.But some of the older less-skilled people never worked again.
The projected shortage of engineers in Ireland didn?t materialise so I, like so many of my friends, spent years abroad.I suppose we can?t really blame the educational planners for their terrible predictions.As Physicist Niels Bohr said, ?prediction is very difficult, especially if it?s about the future.?
I went to America, where I focussed on Electronics, spent another four years doing exams, and four more on research.So much for the exam-free plans of my youth!
During that period, the world changed fundamentally.Political blocks realigned, traditional industries disappeared, the internet was invented, the cost of communications plummeted, and businesses became global.
The electronics industry experienced the effects of globalization ahead of many other industries.Today, supply chains are optimized so that each task is performed in the most cost-effective way. A product is designed in one place, components made in another, assembled in a third, tested in a fourth, and shipped from a fifth.
The consequences of globalization for nations have been dramatic.Quasi-monopolies have emerged very rapidly.Twenty years ago, most microchip companies physically made their own silicon chips.But chip-making factories are incredibly expensive so it doesn?t make sense any more to own your own.Instead, most microchip companies only do the high-value research and development piece; they get their chips manufactured under contract in huge factories in Taiwan.
China?s rapid domination of the textile industry has brought the dangers of globalisation into sharp focus for Europe.We could lose our clothing industry overnight.
We can no longer compete on labour costs.So our manufacturing technology and business processes must be superior.And our research and development must be better again.There is no other way.
I offer the following advice to new graduates: prepare for a career, not a job.What do I mean?The world is changing rapidly.Many jobs will disappear.If yours does, make sure you?re prepared for (or preferably already in) your next one.
I had a biochemist/molecular biologist friend in America who spent years at some of the world?s best research centres learning how to identify genes.His job was eventually automated.Today, he, like everyone else, sends samples to a lab in the UK, where the work is done by a very expensive piece of equipment.
Automation and low-cost economies will continue to eat away at employment in the developed world. Our future lies in adding value through generating and exploiting knowledge.But keep in mind that, in the knowledge economy, everyone potentially has access to the same knowledge base.It?s no longer what you know that matters, but how you can use what you know.You need to develop this skill.
We?ve shown you at undergraduate level how to get started. Apostgraduate research apprenticeship will train you more effectively how to generate new knowledge and more importantly how to extract value from knowledge.In most organizations, people who have postgraduate qualifications are promoted ahead of those who don?t.So if you have the interest and the ability, do postgraduate study. And do it now while you?re young?
Once in employment, follow emerging technologies, learn as much as you can, develop interpersonal and leadership skills.Above all, know yourself.Enhance your strengths and address your weaknesses.Be the best that you can.
May I wish you every success in your careers.